Degrowth

Epiconomics 102 : The Sunlight Economy

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Published on Peak Surfer on May 15, 2016

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"It is green capitalism, we admit, but the gene expression for capitalism must and will change."

 

 

 

 

The adoption of The Paris Agreement by 195 countries on December 12, 2015 marks the end of the era of fossil fuels. There is no way to meet the targets laid out in this agreement without keeping 90 percent or more of remaining coal, oil and gas in the ground. The final text still has some serious gaps, and the timetable will have to speed up, but the treaty draws a red line on atmospheric CO2 we cannot cross. As science, economics and law come into alignment, a solar-powered economy is barrelling at us with unstoppable force.

Nafeez Ahmed, a former Guardian writer who now blogs the System Shift column for VICE’s Motherboard recently pondered the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) problem with renewables and came up with something that might form the basis for smoothing the transition.

First, you have to get a sense of the scale of the driving force behind this change. Ahmed observed that since the crash in oil prices (underlying causes here) and the Paris Agreement, more than 65% of the world’s oil companies have declared bankruptcy. The Economist puts the default at $2.5 trillion. The real number is probably much higher. Following Paris, Goldman Sachs surveyed over $1 trillion in stranded assets out in the fracking fields that will never be booked. Carbon Tracker puts the likely cash that will be thrown down bad wells by the still standing 35% of fossil industry dinosaurs — and never-to-be recouped — at $2.2 trillion.

In our book, The Paris Agreement, we described why the fossil shakeout is likely to liberate huge cashflows into renewable energy, but with one giant caveat. There is significantly lower net energy (EROEI) in renewables than the fossils provided in their heyday. That augurs economic contraction no matter how you slice it.

Degrowth is already happening. Carbon Tracker identified Peabody Coal as one of those energy giants unable to pass a 2C stress test. Peabody scoffed. Six months later, Peabody went bankrupt.  There are now more solar installers than coal miners in the US and the gap widens each month.

Mark Harrington, an oil industry consultant, tells his clients now the cascading debt defaults will shake the global economy by late 2016 or early 2017 and could make the 2007-8 financial crash look like a cakewalk. Utilities are the new housing bubble.

The EROEI on Texas Spindletops was 100 to 1. The net energy produced from Canadian tar sands or Bakkan shale is less than you can get from green firewood, maybe 3 to 1. Oil rig count in the Bakkan as of this morning: zero. Lost investment exploring and drilling there? billions.

Nafeez Ahmed says:

The imperative to transition away from fossil fuels is, therefore, both geophysical and environmental. On the one hand, by mid-century, fossil fuels and nuclear power will become obsolete as a viable source of energy due to their increasingly high costs and low quality. On the other, even before then, to maintain what scientists describe as a ‘safe operating space’ for human survival, we cannot permit the planet to warm a further 2C without risking disastrous climate impacts.

Staying below 2C, the study finds, will require renewable energy to supply more than 50 percent of total global energy by 2028, “a 37-fold increase in the annual rate of supplying renewable energy in only 13 years.”

Let us leave aside the 2C discussion for now. Two degrees is in the bank and 5 degrees is what we have a slim chance of averting, assuming we can muster the collective will to plant enough trees, make soil, and stop dumping carbon into the atmosphere. Whether 4 degrees, which is likely to be reached by about mid-century, give or take 10 years, is survivable by mammals such as ourselves remains an open question. The odds do not favor our collectively recognizing the risk in time, all of us must acknowledge.

Those odds get even longer once President Trump, taking advice from the Koch brothers, Dick Cheney and Mitch "Black Lungs Matter" McConnell, appoints an Energy Task Force sometime in the first hundred days. Within a few months, Congress will attempt to bend energy economics around their political gravity well. They will superincentivize coal, nuclear and fracked gas and raise even more impossible hurdles for solar power, responsible biomass waste conversion and energy efficiency. Chances then of humans surviving another century: nil.

Trump's tweet has now been retweeted 27,761 times.

Last year the G7 set the goal of decarbonization by end of century, which, like Trump, is a formula for Near Term Human Extinction. At the Paris gathering 195 countries agreed to bounce the date to 2050, with a proviso that it could even accelerate more if needed. More will be needed.

The Bright Shining Hope

Analysts like Stanford’s Tony Seba say that solar power has doubled every year for the last 20 years and costs of photovoltaic power have dropped 22% with each doubling. If you believe these numbers, eight more doublings — by 2030 — and solar power will provide 100% of the world’s electricity at a fraction of today’s prices with significant reductions of carbon emissions. But there is a hitch.

The EROEI of solar power is not improving as quickly as the price. Energy efficiency, especially the embodied energy of components like turbine towers and rooftop arrays and the mined minerals for crystal manufacture, is substantially less than the concentrated caloric punch of oil and coal. Fossil sunlight is to sunlight as crack cocaine is to coca leaves.

And a decarbonated SMART is not your daddy’s muscle car.

That is not to say a civil society living on sunlight can’t still be very nice, and nicer, in fact, than the dirtier industrial civilization, especially if you only have a generation or two left before you go extinct to enjoy it.

All of this revolution could be accomplished, and paid for, simply by a small epigenetic hack in the DNA of central banks. They need to express the gene that prints money. As Ellen Brown explains:

"The combination of fiat money and Globalization creates a unique moment in history where the governments of the developed economies can print money on an aggressive scale without causing inflation. They should take advantage of this once-in-history opportunity . . . ."

Don't panic, and it might be a good idea to follow Ford Prefect's example of carrying a towel, in the unlikely event that the planet is suddenly demolished by a Vogon constructor fleet to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Despite the paucity of intelligence in the throne room of the Empire, there is, however, a faint glimmer of light coming from a corner of the dungeon, should we peer farther. Ahmed latches on to Eric Toensmeier’s new book, The Carbon Farming Solution, that quotes a Rodale Institute study:

Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture’… These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.

As we described in our books, The Biochar Solution and The Paris Agreement, it is possible to unleash the healing powers of the natural world — not by tampering further but by discerning and moving with its flows the way indigenious peoples did for eons — that doesn't just halt climate change but restores it to the pre-industrial. By using a permaculture cascade — regenerative cropping to food, feed and fiber; to protein and probiotic extracts (from waste byproducts); to biofuels (from waste byproducts); to biochar and biofertilizers (from waste byproducts); to probiotic animal supplements and industrial applications like fuel cells (from biochar) — bioeconomics can transform a dying planet into a garden world. But, again, there is a hitch.

Ahmed says:

According to a 2011 report by the National Academy of Sciences, the scientific consensus shows conservatively that for every degree of warming, we will see the following impacts: 5-15 percent reductions in crop yields; 3-10 percent increases in rainfall in some regions contributing to flooding; 5-10 percent decreases in stream-flow in some river basins, including the Arkansas and the Rio Grande, contributing to scarcity of potable water; 200-400 percent increases in the area burned by wildfire in the US; 15 percent decreases in annual average Arctic sea ice, with 25 percent decreases in the yearly minimum extent in September.

The challenge climate change poses to bioeconomics is where epigenetic agents come in. There is a permaculture army waiting in the wings. We have been training and drilling for 30 years. Cue marching entrance, stage left, with George M. Cohan’s arrangement of Yankee Doodle Dandy.

 

 

This will require more than Busby Berkeley. First, as we described here last week, we will need a change of the command switches that express civilization’s genes. This is unlikely to come from Hillary Clinton, central banks, the G7 or the International Monetary Fund — just witness the debacle at Doha in April.  It will more likely arise spontaneously from the grass roots, led by regenerative farmers, treehuggers and degrarians, but funded — massively — by institutional investors in search of safe havens from petrocollapse and failing confidence in a stale, counterproductive paradigm.

It is green capitalism, we admit, but the gene expression for capitalism must and will change.

"If you think about it, economic growth could happen through dematerialization," says Jack Buffington, a researcher at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and author of Progress, Technology and Seven Billion People: A Solution to Save Capitalism and The Recycling Myth: Disruptive Innovation to Improve the Environment.

"Think about all the different things your smart phone can do that 20 years ago you had a computer, you had a telephone. you had an alarm clock…. So, I think there is a way to transform things through the use of materials to dematerialize while at the same time leading to economic growth. Even if you tried to stop innovation you won't. What we have to push for is a model that between the environment and the economy is complementary, so we achieve goals of improving people's lives at the same time as improving the environment."

A bioeconomy is coming. Fast. There are demonstrations of it, large and small, popping up all over the world. The DNA for the global financial marketplace — our social customs for nations, currency systems and trade — has not changed. What is being transformed is the histone that occupies the space between the helices and flips the switches to turn expressions on and off. Who are the radical free agent proteins that are moving in to transform the histone?

You are.

 

Epiconomics 101: Our Fiscal Genome

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Published on Peak Surfer on May 8, 2016

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Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner

 
"Vital public services like health care, education, transportation and communication should be free."

 

In the May 2d New Yorker, Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote an ode to his mother and aunt, identical twins, taking the opportunity to dig into the roles of nature and nurture in shaping our lives, Going a step farther, he brought in one of our favorite topics here, epigenetics, or the ability of the same DNA strand to issue different instructions depending on external stimuli.

Last year, in our discussion of quantum entanglement, we observed how little of what we call our own bodies is actually our own DNA. More than 95 percent belongs to our unique, personal, coevolving microbiome that not only helps us breathe, digest, and heal illness, but influences our patterns of thought and intentions.

Mukherjee chronicled the gross result of this conspiracy, describing how two brothers, separated by geographic and economic continents, might be brought to tears by the same Chopin nocturne, as if responding to some subtle, common chord struck by their genomes, or perhaps by their epigenomes, and how two sisters — separated long before the development of language — had invented the same word to describe the way they scrunched up their noses: “squidging.”

Mukherjee overlooked the closely entangled microbial web of alien presences, but we’d observe that although these twins may have placed distance and culture between themselves, they had been together long enough to have nearly identical microbiomes from gestation, birth and infancy.

Nucleosome crystal structure at 2.8 angstrom resolution showing a disk-like shape. DNA helices at edge, histones and free proteins in center. The worm-like structures are RNA messengers. reasonandscience.heavenforum.org

Mukherjee writes:

It is a testament to the unsettling beauty of the genome that it can make the real world stick. Hindu philosophers have long described the experience of “being” as a web—jaal. Genes form the threads of the web; the detritus that adheres to it transforms every web into a singular being. An organism’s individuality, then, is suspended between genome and epigenome. We call the miracle of this suspension “fate.” We call our responses to it “choice.” We call one such unique variant of one such organism a “self.”

In his visits with various scientists Mukherjee probed the complex connections of the histones that occupy the empty spaces within the double helix and seem to possess a mysterious power to trigger or silence gene expressions. What he seems to overlook is the role of non-human microbiological agents in making these sorts of choices for their hosts. Indeed, his description of a histone begs comparison to other life forms:

In 1996, Allis and his research group deepened this theory with a seminal discovery. “We became interested in the process of histone modification,” he said. “What is the signal that changes the structure of the histone so that DNA can be packed into such radically different states? We finally found a protein that makes a specific chemical change in the histone, possibly forcing the DNA coil to open. And when we studied the properties of this protein it became quite clear that it was also changing the activity of genes.” The coils of DNA seemed to open and close in response to histone modifications—inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, like life.

***

These protein systems, overlaying information on the genome, interacted with one another, reinforcing or attenuating their signals. Together, they generated the bewildering intricacy necessary for a cell to build a constellation of other cells out of the same genes, and for the cells to add “memories” to their genomes and transmit these memories to their progeny.

While we were pondering these things, bicycling through a Spring rainstorm one morning, we tuned our mobile cyberamphibian prosthesis to Michael Hudson’s interview on Extraenvironmentalist #91. Hudson described how debt deflation is imposing austerity on the U.S. and European economies, siphoning wealth and income to the financial center while impoverishing the periphery. Its the theme of his latest book, Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy.

Crossing two hot wires in our rain soaked brain, the comparison between economic theory and genetics wafted a blue smoke that trailed out from under our bike helmet.

The system itself — the DNA code — is monetary policy, trade rules, labor, capital assets and other components of what we call “the economy.” The histones are the central banks and the FED that set the policies epigenetically by turning switches on or off. The wild cards are those alien protein agents that seem to bring about changes in the histones. A century ago those might have included J. D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan. Then came Henry Wallace and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today they would include Jaime Dimon (Morgan Chase), Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs), Christine Lagarde (IMF), and Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.

It is pretty clear from most indicators that since at least 2008, and likely much earlier, our economic DNA has been instructed to express a cancer. As Gail Tyerberg observes:

Both energy and debt have characteristics that are close to “magic” with respect to the growth of the economy. Economic growth can only take place when growing debt (or a very close substitute, such as company stock) is available to enable the use of energy products.

Back in the era of cheap energy less debt was required. In our era of expensive energy, gigantic and growing debt is required. But you can only build debt on itself up to the point where confidence in repayment by those who are owed the money falters. After that, watch out. No debt, no energy. No energy, no economy.

Greg Mannarino of Traders Choice says:

Let’s just look at the stock market… there’s no possible way at this time that these multiples can be justified with regard to what’s occurring here with the price action of the overall market… meanwhile, the market continues to rise. … Nothing is real. I can’t stress this enough… and we’re going to continue to see more fakery… and manipulation and twisting of this entire system… We now exist in an environment where the financial system as a whole has been flipped upside down just to make it function… and that’s very scary. … We’ve never seen anything like this in the history of the world… The Federal Reserve has never been in a situation like this… we are completely in uncharted territory where the world’s central banks have gone negative interest rates… it’s all an illusion to keep the stock market booming.

… Every single asset now… I don’t care what asset… you want to look at currency, debt, housing, metals, the stock market… pick an asset… there’s no price discovery mechanism behind it whatsoever… it’s all fake… it’s all being distorted. … The system is built upon on one premise and that is confidence that it will work… if that confidence is rattled the whole thing will implode… our policy makers are well aware of this… there is collusion between central banks and their respective governments… and it will not stop until it implodes… and what I mean by implode is, correct to fair value.”

It’s created a population boom… a population boom has risen in tandem with the debt. It’s incredible. So, when the debt bubble bursts we’re going to get a correction in population. It’s a mathematical certainty. Millions upon millions of people are going to die on a world-wide scale when the debt bubble bursts. And I’m saying when not if… … When resources become more and more scarce we’re going to see countries at war with each other. People will be scrambling… in a worst case scenario… doing everything that they can to survive… to provide for their family and for themselves. There’s no way out of it.”

Jason Heppenstall, who lives in Cornwall, England, writes in the 22billionenergyslaves blog:

Aside from the police and the shops closing, public toilets are closed virtually all of the time, and the Post Office too is soon to close down, having been privatised and now asset stripped. The council is being forced to raise its taxation rates by 4% this year to cover the shortfall caused by spiraling costs and diminished funding from central government. Clinics and charities are being squeezed out of existence and the local council tried (and failed) to privatise the town’s midsummer festival.

My wife works in the care sector. The stories I get to hear will make you never want to be dependent on the state in your old age. If you can’t rely on your kids to look after you in your dotage it might be wise to keep a bottle of whisky and a revolver in your bottom drawer. Or maybe you'd rather die of thirst lying in your own mess because the 19-year-old unqualified carer who works for minimum wage is too busy checking Facebook on her phone to hear you pressing the emergency button by the bed.

Former US Budget Czar David Stockman wrote this week:

Owing to the recency bias that dominates mainstream news and commentary, the massive expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet depicted above goes unnoted and unremarked, as if it were always part of the financial landscape. In fact, however, it is something radically new under the sun; it’s the footprint of a monetary fraud breathtaking in its magnitude.

***

In essence, during the last 15 years the Fed has gifted the US economy with a $4 trillion free lunch. Uncle Sam bought $4 trillion worth of weapons, highways, government salaries and contractual services but did not pay for them by extracting an equal amount of financing from taxes or tapping the private savings pool, and thereby “crowding out” other investments.
 

This is not Al Gore. It is Elon Musk, a beneficiary of govt largess

Instead, Uncle Sam “bridge financed” these expenditures on real goods and services by issuing US treasury bonds on a interim basis to clear his checking account. But these expenses were then permanently funded by fiat credits conjured from thin air by the Fed when it did the “takeout” financing. Central bank purchase of government bonds in this manner is otherwise and cosmetically known as “quantitative easing” (QE), but it’s fraud all the same.

In essence, Uncle Sam has gotten $4 trillion of “something for nothing” during the last 16 years, while the Washington politicians and policy apparatchiks were happy to pretend that the “independent” Fed was doing god’s work of catalyzing, coaxing and stimulating more jobs and growth out of the US economy.

What the Fed was actually doing was falsifying and inflating the price of financial assets. As Michael Hudson points out, the prime error is placing the financial sector in the same column as honest labor or capital contributions. Finance is actually a drain on those things. It is a withdrawal from productivity, not a contributor to GDP.

Stockman agrees:

But financial engineering does not add to GDP or increase primary spending; it results in the re-pricing of existing financial assets. That is, it gooses stock prices higher, makes executive stock options more valuable and confers endless windfalls on the fast money speculators who work the financial casinos.

Last month, Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank president, became the first central banker to take seriously the idea of helicopter money – the direct distribution of newly created money from the central bank to eurozone residents.
 

Germany’s leaders have reacted furiously and are now subjecting Draghi to nationalistic personal attacks. Less visibly, Italy has also led a quiet rebellion against the pre-Keynesian economics of the German government and the European commission. In EU councils and again at this month’s IMF meeting in Washington, DC, Pier Carlo Padoan, Italy’s finance minister, presented the case for fiscal stimulus more strongly and coherently than any other EU leader. More important, Padoan has started to implement fiscal stimulus by cutting taxes and maintaining public spending plans, in defiance of German and EU commission demands to tighten his budget. As a result, consumer and business confidence in Italy have rebounded to the highest level in 15 years, credit conditions have improved, and Italy is the only G7 country expected by the IMF to grow faster in 2016 than 2015 (albeit still at an inadequate 1% rate).

The Automatic Earth

With England jumping ship and Germany saying nicht to every reform proposal, the EU is headed for a disaster but Italy seems to be able to still think outside the box. To us this suggests the potential for alien-led histone modification in the DNA of modern finance.

Heppenstall says:

The irony of being called anti-European is that I am ardently pro-European. I’ve lived in four different EU countries, travelled all over and am married to an Italian Dane. Europe, to me, is the most diverse place in the world and has an amazing spread of history and culture. My ideal life would involve spending several months each year travelling around Europe in a camper van and getting to know it in an even more intimate manner. The EU is not Europe; it’s an abstract concept masking a faceless undemocratic organisation that funnels wealth from one place to another and keeps its modesty intact behind a fig leaf of supposed liberalism.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We could still have a Europe united around some core values other than money and power and capitalism. How about a Europe focused on an emerging eco-consciousness? Or what about remaking it as a loose cooperative of bioregions? Or perhaps, at the very least, we could all agree on a shared constitution founded on liberty, equality and fraternity. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has suggested something along those lines, setting up a pan-European umbrella group called DiEM25 that aims to shake things up ‘gently, compassionately but firmly.’ Perhaps there could be more debate about what kind of Europe would be better suited to weathering the coming financial, ecological and energy shocks without causing so much collateral damage to both itself and other nations.

Until that happens we’ll just have to stand back and watch the fireworks. Big institutions like the EU are like skyscrapers; they don’t come crashing down to the ground without taking out plenty of other nearby buildings and the EU is like the leaning tower of Pisa on steroids.  Big things are an artifact of the age of oil – the future is necessarily smaller and more local. The best course of action is to stop arguing over whether it is best to be stood on top of the creaking tower it or beside it, and simply get the hell out of the way before it goes over. 

Draghi’s Italy, it should be recalled, was the country whose Supreme Court last month ruled that Roman Ostriakov, a young homeless man who had bought a bag of breadsticks from a supermarket but had slipped a wurstel – a small sausage – and cheese into his pocket, had acted out of an immediate need by stealing a minimal amount of food, and therefore had not committed a crime. Carlo Rienzi, president of Codacons, an environmental and consumer rights group, told Il Mesaggero, “In recent years the economic crisis has increased dramatically the number of citizens, especially the elderly, forced to steal in supermarkets to be able to make ends meet.” La Stampa said that, for supreme court judges, the right to survive still trumped property rights, a fact that would be considered “blasphemy in America.”

Michael Hudson

Hudson is another epigenetic secret agent. He advocates a debt jubilee similar to what Truman pushed on Europe after World War II, creating the “German Economic Miracle.” In Hudson’s view, the quickest route to reform would be shifting from taxing honest labor to taxing unearned income and capital gains; from burdening the shrinking middle class to shrinking the rentier class. Vital public services like health care, education, transportation and communication should be free.

Ellen Brown, who has been beating the drum for public banks from her Web of Debt page and books, notes that the Bank of North Dakota, the nation’s only state-owned depository bank, was more profitable last year than J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, and that was after the fracked gas bubble burst. She urges local governments everywhere to bypass the Fed and the vulture banking system and create their own public banks.

Ellen Brown

North Dakota has led the way in demonstrating how a state can jump-start a flagging economy by keeping its revenues in its own state-owned bank, using them to generate credit for the state and its citizens, bypassing the tourniquet on the free flow of credit imposed by private out-of-state banks. California and other states could do the same. They could create jobs, restore home ownership, rebuild infrastructure and generally stimulate their economies, while generating hefty dividends for the state, without increasing debt levels or risking public funds – and without costing taxpayers a dime.

The ability of these foreign antagonists to infect the global economy with a new narrative is a relatively recent phenomenon. The false narrative embedded by Bretton Woods and the Chicago School are not that thoroughly ensconced that they can’t be evicted. There is no reason why the inane policies of economic astrologers could not be quickly reversed by protein protagonists with simple but compelling histological reforms, such as basing the future on a bioeconomy that sequesters carbon and runs on sunlight.

Next week: Epiconomics 102: The Sunlight Economy 

Too Big to Scale

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Published on Peak Surfer on April 3, 2016

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"We’re looking at The Cloud from both sides now."

While it is not likely that the heterodox economist E.F. "Fritz" Schumacher was the first to use the term “appropriate technology” — he preferred “intermediate technology” — he certainly had a big role in defining it. In Small is Beautiful he described it as the “middle way,” which dovetailed nicely with his elucidation of Buddhist economics, or what Mohandas Gandhi called "Economy of Permanence." 

According to Schumacher, a technology is appropriate to preserve, adopt and adapt if it is truly village scale, lying in that mid-range between individualistic technology (toothbrush, smartphone, coffee cup) and industrial-scale (pharmaceutical laboratory, steel mill, railroad).

Examples of village scale are the old bakery, perhaps a large stone or brick oven where families bring their doughs to become breads; the bicycle repair shop; or a family-run tofu shop (as in the 10,000 or more in any large Japanese city) because handcrafted tofu is much to be preferred in taste, texture and nutrition over machine-produced.

 

James Earl Jones as Locust-Man

As early as the 1960s Schumacher, as president of the UK Soil Association, was correctly diagnosing what was wrong with the atom as an energy source. In 1977 he published A Guide for the Perplexed as a critique of materialist scientism. It was also a foray into the nature and organization of knowledge. He championed the style of Ivan Illich's conviviality: user-friendly and ecologically suitable; applicable to the scale of the human and natural community.

Born in the late 1940s, we were witness to Moore’s Law from its birth. We watched electric typewriters replace manual portables, then IBM Selectrics arrive with their changeable font-balls and auto-erase tape. We were there when punch cards and tape readers began to type form letters like a player piano. From the days of our youth, hand calculators kept getting smarter than we were. 

In the late 70s we automated our Plenty Office and the Book Publishing Company with arrays of linked, part home-brew, part off-the-shelf, CPU-and-dumb-terminal minicomputers. Soon came inexpensive personal computers that put desktop publishing and spreadsheets into the hands of the masses and made small fortunes for Apple, Atari, Dell and Texas Instruments.

Office networks of linked hard-drives using first ethernet and then wireless LANs and WANs were middle scale appropriate technology as long as you could service the devices or maybe even build them yourselves within the village. All was well on this good earth. Desktop computers were like tractors or teams of oxen, shortening the time it took you to furrow your inbox or do your taxes.  

Then came The Cloud upon the land. Cut to the scene in The Good Earth where the Chinese farmers look to the sky as their faces darken — the locusts are here! That was about 10 years ago, or 5 generations in factor-four Silicon Time.

Boston-based research outfit Forrester calls cloud computing—that’s public cloud computing—a “hyper-growth” market. In a recent report, it predicts the market for cloud services will grow to $191 billion by 2020, a 20 percent leap from what it predicted just a few years ago. “The adoption of cloud among enterprises, which is really where the money is, has really picked up steam,” Forrester analyst John Rymer recently told us. “It’s a big shift. The cloud has arrived. It’s inevitable.”

– Cade Metz, Wired 12-22-15


Getting back into our annual workshop schedule here at The Farm, we find ourselves stuck without a middle way, with no “village scale” with regard to either email or accounting. We have always suffered the digital divide by electing to live in a rural area in a country without Net Neutrality, but we take clean air and birdsong more seriously than ones and zeros.

What passes for broadband in rural Tennessee would be laughable in Romania or Thailand. We live beyond the profitable reach of the cable companies, or even DSL from the quasi-federal phone monopoly. Getting a dumbphone mobile connection here can be challenging, never mind G3 or G4. We pay far too much for far too little connectivity, but then, welcome to the unpaved precincts. Have you seen the stars at night?
 

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

— Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now (May, 1969)


We’re looking at The Cloud from both sides now. Many, if not all, of the email and accounting packages that have the capabilities we need have discontinued stand-alone functionality and hard drive data storage on your personal device in favor of wireless subscription plans. An unbeckoned choice is being thrust upon us. Either we late-migrate to the Cloud and trust in her all-knowing beneficence (and suffer indignities whenever there is no connection) or we put up with rapidly-shrinking features and capabilities. 
 
For code-writers keeping legacy software working may be somewhat easier. But most code-writers are Cloud addicts, not old school.

We use Photoshop but seldom have need for the other Adobe apps packaged into their (formerly $3650) Master Suite. To us it was worth several hundred dollars plunked down every few years to have that one app. We’ve tried GIMP and other freeware but they are no substitute for Photoshop. Now a subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud would cost us about $2,400 — assuming the price doesn’t go up. And that is just one subscription, from one cloud provider.

Microsoft rolled out Office 365 in 2011 but still plans to sell packaged software for a while, which makes sense given how much of the world has weak to nil internet connectivity. “Unlike Adobe, we think people’s shift from packaged software to subscription services will take time,” Microsoft told Wired.

The largest cloud storage provider, Amazon Web Services, reported $2.41 billion in revenue for the fourth quarter last year, or more than $9.6 billion in annualized sales—and that’s after the $10-billion-dollar company Dropbox ported off Amazon to build its own server farms in Q3.

Dropbox calls each of its storage machines a Diskotech. “The thing we care about the most is the disk,” its chief engineer told Wired. “That’s where all the bytes are.” 

Measuring only one-and-half-feet by three-and-half-feet by six inches, each Diskotech box holds as much as a petabyte of data, or a million gigabytes. Fifty of these machines could store everything human beings have ever written. Maybe even all the cute kitten videos on YouTube (“Maru gets into a box” – “大きな箱とねこ” – 8.1 million views).

At one point in 2015, when it was moving from Amazon to its own 40 acres and a mule, Dropbox was installing forty to fifty racks of hardware a day, each rack holding about eight individual machines. That installation rate continued for nearly six months. They surpassed Peak Kitten in the first month.

We have had the trauma of a terabyte data fail. It is not pretty. It means we now have to have 2 or 3 terabyte safety redundancies. If you go to DVD you can become dependent on legacy hardware (DVD readers and burners), calling up recollections of floppies, cassettes, optical readers, etc. we may still have in the attic but prefer not to think about. 

A flash drive is ephemeral – how many years will it hold its charge without any degradation or chance encounters with moisture, temperature change or magnetic fields?

We want to be able to access 20-year-old data using only the power of a Biolite Stove and no cloud. We can do that right now with an iPad and a portable HD. Can we do it still in 2017?

There may come a time when we just have to go our own way and de-cloud. At the moment we are struggling to remain amphibian, with a webbed foot in each world. Thanks for all the fish, but for now we intend to keep our paper-based bookkeeping and a sharpenable pencil.

Many years ago Amory Lovins’ Brittle Power described how lack of prudence and foresight had allowed city and regional planners to erect a monumental infrastructure of energy supply that keeps the lights on at night across North America but can be taken down by a tree branch falling on wires in a blizzard, or a pipe bomb in a pipeline.

The same kind of blind spot infects the planners of the Cyberverse. Mighty as they be, they are not Gods. To get to be in their club, you have to take the blue pill to believe the separate reality the Google-vets believe; the one with Space X missions to Mars and fusion-powered Teslas.

This represents an attitude that began with Google and has gradually spread across Silicon Valley. Google was so successful not just because it built a pretty good Internet search engine, but because it built the underlying technology needed to run that search engine—and so many other services—at an enormous scale. Facebook, which recruited countless ex-Googlers, did much the same. And so did Twitter and its ex-Googlers. And, now, so has Dropbox. To become a giant, you may have to stand on the shoulders of others. But once you become your own giant, you start to feel like you need to build a home that’s just right for you.

— Cade Metz, Wired 3-14-16


The problem, as we see it, is that the parallel reality field is eating away the brains of its wizards. Wormhole-brained, they keep edging farther out onto the limb of a system that is just one fallen-tree-branch or cyberattack away from ruin. Worse, they are forcing the rest of us to follow along and add our weight to that same weak limb.

The Paris Gravity Well 2: Trillionization

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Published on Peak Surfer on January 24, 2016

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Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

"We will not suddenly convert steel mills, cement kilns and road surfacing machines to operate on sunbeams."
 

Charlie said, "That's the trouble. You see it the way the banking industry sees it and they make money by manipulating money irrespective of effects in the real world. You've spent a trillion dollars of American taxpayers' money over the lifetime of the bank and there's nothing to show for it. You go into poor countries and force them to sell their assets to foreign investors and to switch from subsistence agriculture to cash crops. Then, when the prices of those crops collapse, you call this "nicely competitive" on the world market. The local populations starve and you then insist on austerity measures even though your actions have shattered their economy….

"You were intended to be the Marshall Plan, and instead you've been carpetbaggers."

— Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting: Science in the Capitol (2007).

“With fundamentals changing slowly and risk appetite falling rapidly, the stage is set for a longer period of risk asset underperformance,” Jabaz Mathai, a strategist at Citigroup Inc., said.  “There is no quick fix to the headwinds facing global growth.”

"Similar periods of weakness have occurred in only five other instances since 1985: (1) the majority of 1988, (2) the first half of 1991, (3) several weeks in early 1996, (4) late 2000 and early 2001, and (5) late 2008 and the majority of 2009 … all either overlapped with a recession, or preceded a recession by a few quarters."

There has been a storm brewing since the last trifle with full-on collapse in 2008-2009. The extend-and-pretend debt balloon was reinflated and stretched to new enormities as Keynesian cash infusions fueled a Minsky Moment, if not a Korowicz Crunch.

The instability in finance is compounded by the instability in demographics. In Mexico City, Bogata and Rio they call them NINIs — the millions of youth between 15 and 24 who neither study nor work. They are now about a fifth of the population in the underdeveloping world, responsible for higher rates of homicide, gangs, and unwed pregnancy. Of those born to NINI mothers, there is a 22.3% greater likelihood of becoming a NINI, according to the World Bank. All this tinder simply builds, bides its time, wanders the streets, waits for a revolutionary spark.

As we said here last week, the trigger for the markets' sudden move may have been what happened in Paris but could not stay in Paris. When it filtered out from the December summit that 195 countries had actually done the unimaginable and set a goal of carbon neutrality, meaning phasing out net fossil fuel emissions by 2050, the financial sector was at first caught dumbfounded. The World Bank guys flinched.

Now it has sunk in. The Guardian reports:

Former OMB Chief David Stockman's recap

Investors face a “cataclysmic year” where stock markets could fall by up to 20% and oil could slump to $16 (£11) a barrel, economists at the Royal Bank of Scotland have warned. In a note to its clients the bank said: “Sell everything except high quality bonds. This is about return of capital, not return on capital. In a crowded hall, exit doors are small.” It said the current situation was reminiscent of 2008, when the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank led to the global financial crisis. This time China could be the crisis point.

Government subsidies are about to undergo a titanic shift. Many governments spend more on fossil-fuel subsidies than they do on health and education, more than a trillion dollars. Consumer benefits such as subsidized fuels and cheap finance add $548 billion per year. Government support for companies to expand production add another $542 billion just in G20 overdeveloped countries, and a mere top 8 of those will spend $80 billion of this kind every year, four times the investments going to renewables globally.

Tomorrow those same Big-8, and 188 others, will begin spending several times those trillions subsidizing renewables. Jeremy Leggett, founder of Solar Aid and Solarcentury, calls it "trillionization." It won't begin to fill the energy gap that the switch will create, but the psychology of sunk investment will be in charge from thereon out.

Oil producing states and countries are aghast. The "clear signal" that Paris sent was not what they were expecting. In Alaska, the Permanent Fund has been running in the red and the legislature is talking about an income tax. Had the Paris Agreement not come together, they might hope for a rebound of fossil prices and investments in drilling the North Slope and Arctic Refuge.

Petroblas, the national oil company of Brazil and wellspring of the Brazilian Economic Miracle, is now cash negative. It will be forced to turn to the government for a bail-out, but to where will its government turn?

In Mexico, the deficit is running 100 billion and the peso has dropped from 12 in 2014 to soon-to-be 20 against the dollar. If you have dollars you can get a meal in a good restaurant or a room for the night for 5 or 10 of them. So far in January the price rise of food for the average Mexican is alarming. Onions are up 19%, poblanos 15%, bananas 10%, tomatoes 9%.
 
The national oil company, PEMEX, came out on Monday saying it is not true that its operating with losses, but below the $26 per barrel it would be. On Tuesday the price dropped to $24.74. It closed the week at $22.77 but as we write this you can buy a barrel in Mexico City for as little as $20.32. Mexico's federal budget is entirely dependent on oil money and don't look now but Mexico, when it was petrodollar flush, became a net importer of most staple foods and many other essential commodities, which helps explain the grocery dilemma. Mexico now buys onions, poblanos, bananas and tomatoes from California. Also beans, corn and rice.

Gotta love those World Bank guys.

Venezuela, which surprised everyone by signing the Paris Agreement at the final hour, declared an economic emergency on January 15. France, which foolishly drank too much atomic kool aid thinking it might spare itself from petrocollapse, has a budget shortfall of 2.2 billion dollars and declared national economic emergency on January 17. The jobless rate in France, the eurozone's 2d largest economy, is above 10%, compared with a 9.8% EU average.

Andrew Roberts, RBS’s credit chief, said:

European and US markets could fall by 10% to 20%, with the FTSE 100 particularly at risk due to the predominance of commodity companies in the UK index. London is vulnerable to a negative shock. All these people who are long [buyers of] oil and mining companies thinking that the dividends are safe are going to discover that they’re not at all safe.

We suspect 2016 will be characterized by more focus on how the exiting occurs of positions in the three main asset classes that benefited from quantitative easing: 1) emerging markets, 2) credit, 3) equities … Risks are high.

Zero Hedge reports:
 

"For dry bulk, China has gone completely belly up,” said Erik Nikolai Stavseth, an analyst at Arctic Securities ASA in Oslo, talking about ships that haul everything from coal to iron ore to grain. “Present Chinese demand is insufficient to service dry-bulk production, which is driving down rates and subsequently asset values as they follow each other.”

“China’s slowdown has come as a major shock to the system,” said Hartland Shipping’s Prentis. “We are now caught in the twilight zone between shifts in China’s economy, and it is uncomfortable as it’s causing unexpected slowing of demand.”

The continued collapse of The Baltic Dry Index remains ignored by most.

According to  Zero Hedge:

The North Atlantic has few to nil cargo traveling in its waters. Instead, the giant container ships are anchored. Unmoving. Empty.

Commerce between Europe and North America has literally come to a halt. For the first time in known history, not one cargo ship is in-transit in the North Atlantic between Europe and North America. All of them (hundreds) are either anchored offshore or in-port. NOTHING is moving.

This has never happened before. It is a horrific economic sign; proof that commerce is literally stopped.

The slow response to the Paris outcome has been a complete portfolio review by every actuary and bean-counter in the biggest banks and investment houses, pension funds and mutuals. Hedge fund managers are scratching and sniffing for places to park billions being lifted from soon-to-be-stranded fossil assets. The clean-tech market, signaled first by China, is reacting by recycling cash out of fossil holdings.

Peter Sinclair of ClimateCrocks.com reports:

The Energy Information Administration calculates in its 2015 analysis that the average U.S. levelized cost for new natural-gas advanced combined cycle plants is 7.3 cents per kilowatt-hour — the same as solar.

However, to compare accurately, we have to add about 10 percent to the cost of solar to firm up this variable resource. So we’re close to cost parity, but not quite there.

At $1 per watt, the levelized cost falls to just 5.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, well below cost parity with new natural-gas plants. With two-axis trackers and the best solar resources, which increase the capacity factor to 32 percent, that cost falls to just 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. We’re headed to $1 per watt as an all-in cost in the next five to 10 years.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported last summer that wind power was the cheapest source of power in the U.K. and Germany in 2015, even without subsidies. The article’s tagline reads: “It has never made less sense to build fossil fuel power plants.” The same article highlights the feedback loop that solar and wind power have in terms of reducing the cost-effectiveness of fossil fuel power plants due to the dispatch order of renewables versus fossil fuel plants.

The solar singularity is indeed near (here?) in the U.S. and increasingly around the world. I described previously that 1 percent of the market is halfway to solar ubiquity because 1 percent is halfway between nothing and 100 percent in terms of doublings (seven doublings from .01 percent to 1 percent and seven more from 1 percent to reach 100 percent). The U.S. will reach the 1 percent solar milestone in 2016. We’re halfway there. Buckle your seatbelts.

There are plenty of unemployed oil workers ready for retraining. James Howard Kunstler: 

So, in 2015, the shale oil companies laid off thousands of workers, idled the drilling rigs, and kicked back to pray that the price would go back up. Which it didn’t…. The landscape of North Dakota is littered with unfinished garden apartment complexes that may never be completed, and the discharged construction carpenters and roofers drove back to Minnesota ahead of the re-po men coming for their Ford F-110s.

To see what does well in the new, post-Paris domain, watch stocks like First Solar (FSLR), Renewable Energy Group (REGI), SolarCity (SCTY) and Siemens (SIE) over the next quarter, and mutuals like Firsthand Alternative Energy (ALTEX), New Alternatives (NALFX) and Guinness Atkinson Alternative Energy (GAAEX). Some of these know their audience and have vowed to screen for social justice. Gabelli SRI AAA says, for instance:

The fund will not invest in the top 50 defense/weapons contractors or in companies that derive more than 5% of their revenues from the following areas: tobacco, alcohol, gaming, defense/weapons production….

There is a psychology that sets in once the corner is turned on fossil investments that may make a big difference in the political debate about climate change. For more than half a century the GOP, the Fossil Lobby and Wall Street have blocked, cut or delayed investments in renewables and papered it over with greenwash. Forced by pledges made in Paris — and a legally-binding agreement with the word "shall" used 143 times — and the emergence of a huge new global competition to begin not only unchaining the clean-tech sector, but to actively promote it with subsidies, research grants and moonshot-scale deployments, the psychology of chasing after sunk investments will drive an apolitical energy conversion.

Moreover, 350.org and Greenpeace are ramping up campaigns to make sure the promises made in Paris are kept.
 

No pipelines, no mines. You said 1-point-5!
No pipelines, no mines. You said 1-point-5!
No pipelines, no mines. You said 1-point-5!

Clean energy will not deliver a 1:1 replacement for fossil fuels. Get over it. We will not suddenly convert steel mills, cement kilns and road surfacing machines to operate on sunbeams. But the investments we do make, and the worsening weather, will drive us to make even more and ever larger investments, in a forlorn search for a full replacement. While wasteful, it is not nearly as wasteful as the industrial and military investments of the past century or more.

Persian Gulf wars, going back to antiquity, have never been fought over sunlight. As David Stockman recently recalled:

[A] 45-year old error … holds the Persian Gulf is an American Lake and that the answer to high oil prices and energy security is the Fifth Fleet.

***

That doctrine has been wrong from the day it was officially enunciated by one of America’s great economic ignoramuses, Henry Kissinger, at the time of the original oil crisis in 1973. The 42 years since then have proven in spades that its doesn’t matter who controls the oilfields, and that the only effective cure for high oil prices is the free market.

The switch to sunlight will make the lives we are living better for many, especially those on the front lines of the oil wars, even as we continue towards an Anthropocene Armageddon with little sign of being able to change that trajectory.

Guy McPherson is fond of reminding us, after University of Utah professor Tim Garrett's deft analysis, that industrial civilization is a heat engine.

In a well-read article in Climate Change in November 2010, Garrett ran the simple arithmetic:

Specifically, the human system grows through a self-perpetuating feedback loop in which the consumption rate of primary energy resources stays tied to the historical accumulation of global economic production — or p×g — through a time-independent factor of 9.7±0.3 mW per inflation-adjusted 1990 US dollar.

If civilization is considered at a global level, it turns out there is no explicit need to consider people or their lifestyles in order to forecast future energy consumption. At civilization’s core there is a single constant factor, λ = 9.7 ± 0.3 mW per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar, that ties the global economy to simple physical principles. Viewed from this perspective, civilization evolves in a spontaneous feedback loop maintained only by energy consumption and incorporation of environmental matter.
 

Unsold cars sit on receiving docks all over the world

Because the current state of the system, by nature, is tied to its unchangeable past, it looks unlikely that there will be any substantial near-term departure from recently observed acceleration in CO2 emission rates. For predictions over the longer term, however, what is required is thermodynamically based models for how rates of carbonization and energy efficiency evolve. To this end, these rates are almost certainly constrained by the size and availability of environmental resource reservoirs. Previously, such factors have been shown to be primary constraints in the evolution of species


What this means is the same thing that Gail Tverberg, Richard Heinberg and many others have been saying for a very long time — modern economies are a product of cheap energy. Take that away and they crash and burn. That’s the good news. Garrett says there is no other climate remediation model that works. Civilization is a heat engine whether it is powered by nuclear fusion or photovoltaics. The global economy must crash for humanity to stand a chance. McPherson would take it a step farther and say it is already too late, enjoy what time you have.

The famous Fermi paradox raises the question: why haven’t we detected signs of alien life, despite high estimates of probability, such as observations of planets in the “habitable zone” around a Sun-like star by the Kepler telescope and calculations of hundreds of billions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy that might support life. To produce a habitable planet, life forms need to regulate greenhouse gases such as water and carbon dioxide to keep surface temperatures stable. Early extinction, before interstellar communication, solves the Fermi Paradox. So does merely the extinction of civilization capable of interstellar communication without the same degree of trauma. No civilization, no heat.

But wait! Can that excess heat civilization is producing be turned into air conditioning for the planet? Is there a permacultural decroissance that could rescue our genome? Stay tuned, but first, next week, we play the Trump card.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Paris Gravity Well 1

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Published on Peak Surfer on January 17, 2016

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Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

"The idling of rail, barge, ship and pipeline traffic is the biggest change of its kind in 30 years."

 

   The World Bank Guys talked about rates of return and the burden on investors and the unacceptable cost of the doubling of the price of a kilowatt hour. Everyone there had said all of this before, with the same lack of communication and absence of concrete results.

Charlie saw that the meeting was useless. He thought of Joe, over at the daycare. He had never stayed there long enough even to see what they did all day long. Guilt stuck him like a sliver. In a crowd of strangers, 14 hours a day.

The bank guy was going on about differential costs. "And that's why its going to be oil for the next 20, 30 and maybe even 50 years," he concluded. "None of the alternatives are competitive." Charlie's pencil tip snapped.

"Competitive for what?" he demanded. He had not spoken until that point and now the edge in his voice stopped the discussion. Everyone was staring at him.

He stared back at the World Bank guys. "Damage from carbon dioxide emission costs about $35 per ton. But in your model, no-one pays it. The carbon that British Petroleum burns per year by sale and by operation runs up a damage bill of $50 billion dollars. BP reported a profit of $20 billion so actually its $30 billion in the red, every year.

"Shell reported a profit of $23 billion but if you added the damage cost it would be $8 billion in the red. These companies should be bankrupt. You support their exteriorizing of costs so your accounting is bullshit. You are helping to bring on the biggest catastrophe in human history.

"If the oil companies burn the 500 gigatons of carbon that you are describing as inevitable, because of your financial shell games, then two-thirds of the species on the planet will be endangered, including humans. But you keep talking about fiscal discipline and competitive edges and profit differentials. It's the stupidest head-in-the-sand response possible."

The World Bank guys flinched at this. "Well, we don't see it that way."

 

— Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting: Science in the Capitol (2007).

 While the story coming out of the White House Press Room this week was phrased as a temporary moratorium on new coal mining leases on federal lands, the bigger story was in the details of the review that the President had ordered. Like Robinson's character in Sixty Days, the White House recognized that the real cost of coal is not currently accounted for in its price, so the new review will tally the environmental impacts, including destruction of public lands from air and water pollution from strip mining and failed mine reclamation, public health impacts from transporting and burning coal, damage from ash spills, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. It will set a price on future leases based on this thoroughgoing review that brings the cost of coal in line with the reality of the actual costs.

If this had to be run through Congress, powerful coal-state Senators like Mitch McConnell would derail it before it got out of committee. As merely Bureau of Land Management regulatory policy, it falls under the Executive Branch, where the President's is the only opinion that counts.

Tomorrow senior politicians, digiratti activists and Hollywood stars ski into the Swiss resort of Davos for the annual World Economic Forum. The theme was to have been the 4th Industrial Revolution – robots, AI and the  biotechno singularity — but the buzz is all about the latest crash of the world economy.

The trigger for all this change may have been what happened in Paris but could not stay in Paris. In December we reported from the United Nations climate meeting where many of these same characters — John Kerry, Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel — were on stage. We described then how an amazing role reversal was in progress and how it had transformed COP-21, midway through the second week of deadlocked negotiations.

The roles that switched were between the dominants, like Exxon-Mobil, Shell and BP, and the submissives — the entire renewables industry. Renewables are largely a digital world, enjoying advancements in crystal structure, solid state controllers, neodymium and other rare earth metallurgy that follow the proscribed arc of Moore's law, doubling in efficiency and halving in cost at close intervals, driving exponential adoption and dissemination.

Fossils, in contrast, are an analog industry, trying to wring the last drops of intoxicating elixir from the carpet of the pub after closing time. In 2015 those two curves crossed, and renewables are now cheaper (even free at some hours for select consumers in certain markets) while coal, oil and gas are queuing up outside bankruptcy court.
 

Salvaging beer from the bar floor after last rounds

The US Department of Energy reported this week:
 

The Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) released on January 12 forecasts that Brent crude oil prices will average $40 per barrel (b) in 2016 and $50/b in 2017. This is the first STEO to include forecasts for 2017. Forecast West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices average $2/b lower than Brent in 2016 and $3/b lower in 2017. However, the current values of futures and options contracts continue to suggest high uncertainty in the price outlook. For example, EIA's forecast for the average WTI price in April 2016 of $37/b should be considered in the context of recent contract values for April 2016 delivery, suggesting that the market expects WTI prices to range from $25/b to $56/b (at the 95% confidence interval).

The decline in oil price is too little, too late. It cannot keep pace with the price decline we are seeing in the clean tech revolution. Consequently, more people now work in the US solar industry than in oil and gas at the wellhead. In 2015, for the third straight year, the solar workforce grew 20 percent. Clean tech employs far more women than fossil, and 5 percent of the workforce is African American, 11 percent Latino, and 9 percent Asian/Pacific Islander.

At the same time, rear-guard action by the Coal-Baron-selected legislatures in Arizona and Nevada —  states that could be leading the nation in solar power production — have led to layoffs in the renewables sector. The pushback over solar and wind fees by grid owners, punitive taxes, and net metering promise to keep those states in the Dark Ages, as they did the United States for the past four decades.

In a famous L'il Abner cartoon, Pappy Yokum tells L'il Abner, "Any fool can knock down a barn, it takes a carpenter to build one." To which L'il Abner replies, "Any fool? Let me try!"

Listening to the Republican presidential candidates debate is like watching a Fox-den full of L'il Abners.
 

US Solar Power 2010-2015

So it is not surprising that at the stroke of a pen, three Republican appointees on the Nevada Power Utility Commission decided the fates of millions of ratepayers when they killed solar feed-in-tariffs in that state. It was not unlike Michigan governor Rick Snyder deciding to kill and maim thousands of Detroit residents by switching their water to a polluted source and then covering up the damage. You might say no-one gets killed or maimed from solar energy, and that's closer to true, but plenty more get poisoned every year from the fossil alternative.

The numbers being parsed in Davos will be puzzling to many attending that meeting. From a peak in January 2015 to last October, movements of crude by rail declined more than a fifth. The research group Genscape said rail deliveries to US Atlantic coast terminals continued to drop to the end of the year and the spot market for crude delivered by rail from North Dakota’s Bakken region “is at a near standstill.”

Just 5 years ago investors clamored for more tank cars to pick up the slack from overwhelmed pipeline capacity. Now those cars sit idle on sidings and no one is ordering more. Pipelines are idle too, as refineries on the coasts have found that it is cheaper to buy crude of higher quality than shale oil, shipped by ocean tanker from Canada, Nigeria and Azerbaijan.
 

Junk bond sales are all that supports
the fracked gas Ponzi scheme.

A Congress desperate to please its oil masters in an election year abolished four-decade-old restrictions on exporting domestic crude. While some tankers now take crude from the Gulf Coast to refineries in Venezuela, where the heavy sludges and half-formed keragens can be more economically processed because of fewer environmental restrictions, the US then imports back the finished products at a hefty mark-up.

The idling of rail, barge, ship and pipeline traffic is the biggest change of its kind in 30 years. And while the shift away from coal-powered energy, the long recession, and the petering out of the fracking and shale Ponzi real estate play would obviously lead to fewer tons, barrels and cubic feet being moved, it doesn't explain the full depth of the stoppage. The rail and barge slowdown is now spreading to more consumer-oriented segments. Intermodal carloads typically related to consumer goods fell 1.7 percent in the final quarter of last year.

"We believe rail data may be signaling a warning for the broader economy," the recent note from Bank of America says.
 

"Carloads have declined more than 5 percent in each of the past 11 weeks on a year-over-year basis. While one-off volume declines occur occasionally, they are generally followed by a recovery shortly thereafter. The current period of substantial and sustained weakness, including last week’s -10.1 percent decline, has not occurred since 2009."


“When people get hungry, governments fall” — Stuart Scott, Through A Dark Portal, Radio Ecoshock, January 13, 2016

If you can read the tea leaves, or even if you can't, we are now in the long slide. We will examine the financial road ahead, and the Paris Effect on that, in greater detail next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dystopias and Eutopias

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Published on Peak Surfer on January 3, 2016

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Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

"Cities like Miami, New Orleans, Tokyo and Venice will squander billons to forestall the inevitable and for a while may even seem to succeed, only to lose it all in one spin of the wheel — a single bad day with some monster storm."
 

The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting! 

—Theodore Roethke, The Child on Top of the Greenhouse

Watching the development of the Arctic superstorm on earth.nullschool.net, our eyes drifted to the Eastern Mediterranean, curious about the lake effect of that large body of water on Palestine and the Middle East. We had seen a photo earlier in the week from Instagram of a trolley making its way through snow in Istanbul, and we knew Eastern Mediterranean weather was likely cold. 

We latched onto two curious patterns. The first was that cold air mass descending out of the Russian steppes, crossing the Black Sea, passing through the Dardanelles and entering the Mediterranean, where the hot air mass in Africa wheeled it around to lash the shores of Gaza. It was no surprise to see our heroic permaculture pioneer there in Ramalla, Murad AlKhufash, bundled up against the cold. 

The other pattern we saw was farther west, beyond the boot of Italy, where two air masses converge and bend up into the continent. The first comes in off the North Atlantic, collides with that hot high in North Africa and swings up into Provence. The second is a westward flow of cool Mediterranean air moving down from the Italian Alps, out through the San Remo Bay and then along the gold coast, past Nice, Cannes, Monaco, before suddenly sweeping north, drawn like a magnet to that same compass heading in the Golfe de Lyon. 

We watched, rapt, this vacuum in Southern France, endlessly drawing warm air up into Southwest Europe. It is a weather pattern as old as human history. This is where the oldest known hominid settlement, a stick and sealskin family lodge around a central firepit, is found at Terra Amata, 400000 BCE. "Tautavel man" (possibly Homo heidelbergensis) built refuge there, moving along an annual coastal hunting route during the Mindel glaciation. The cave paintings at Lascaux date to the middle of that Ice Age, when this part of Europe was relatively warm and food was plentiful, although stone tools discovered at Lézignan-la-Cèbe in 2009 date humans in France to at least 1.57 million years ago.

What we are looking at now, with this modern satellite imagery, is the climate signature of very old refugia — the places to which our kind, the two-leggeds, repaired when climate changed abruptly. 

As the weather warmed again, there was an expansion of peoples from southwest Asia into Europe from the Aegean and Eastern Steppes, about 8500 years ago, marked by the introduction of Indo-European speech. Vascons bear the remnant genome — related to none other in the world and retaining a fragment of Neanderthal DNA — and pre-Indo-European linguistic roots. These peoples were likely forced from the lowlands and pushed upland by Middle Eastern migrants from 6500 to 4000 BC, moving eventually into the Pyrenees, where they live today in the Basque region of Spain and Andorra.

As an aside, when we were researching the history of the conquistadors for The Biochar Solution, we came across the fascinating tale of Lope de Aguirre (1510-1561), nicknamed El Loco ('the Madman')  who was psychotically depicted by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's B-film, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, in 1972 (where our friend, the bioregional poet and singer, Christopher Wells, performed as an extra). Aquirre, a Vascon, was said to be nearly 7 feet tall and was uncomfortable in leather boots, which compells us to muse about the possibility of his Neanderthal bloodline. When Aguirre was sentenced to public flogging for his cruelty towards the indigenous peoples he conquered and enslaved, he endured his whipping but then pursued the judge who sentenced him. Over three years he ran 6,000 km (3700 miles) through the mountains and jungles on foot, unshod, on the trail of the judge, who slept in armor to protect himself. He caught and killed the judge but was pardoned in exchange for his Indian-fighting services, until once more atrocities and his open rebellion against the Spanish crown made him a hunted rogue agent, gone off the reservation, and he so was recaptured and terminated with extreme prejudice. 

The people living in the highlands of what is today Bolivia might of thought they had a pretty good life for themselves in a place of great natural beauty until that guy showed up.

Five hundred years before Aguirre, the Southern French and Italian coast was the tribal homeland for the Ligurians, whose language carries as many Celtic words as Indo-European, and who were conquered in the Punic Wars by Rome. The ancient Roman port of Ventimiglia, on San Remo Bay, lies close to one of Europe's most treasured ecovillages, at Torri Superiori, which perches just back up that river valley, at the transition point where paved roads give way to mountain trails, and a days' walk will take you through many vacant, or nearly vacant, fieldstone towns and cobbled hamlet ruins in the foothills.

In 1834, Henry Brougham, Lord Chancellor Lord Brougham and Vaux, discovered the sleepy fishing village of Cannes and built a winter villa there with immense lawns of turf imported from Britain by sail. Lord Brougham, epitomizing Britain's ruling class, is remembered for his stern attack on the radical idea of providing public education:
 

I should regard anything of the kind as utterly destructive of the end it has in view. Suppose the people of England were taught to bear it, and to be forced to educate their children by means of penalties, education would be made absolutely hateful in their eyes, and would speedily cease to be endured. They who have argued in favour of such a scheme from the example of a military government like that of Prussia have betrayed, in my opinion, great ignorance of the nature of Englishmen.

— Report of the Parliamentary Committee on the State of Education (1834).

Trailing in Brougham's turfboat wake, wealthy Victorian scoundrels landscaped themselves along the gold coast and over the present Italian border to Bordighera, San Remo and other Ligurian villages (until 1860, Nice and Menton were in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia), building exotic terraced gardens and palatial estates befitting the rewards of extractive colonial empire. It was in a family villa near Ventimiglia that Lord Balfour hosted the San Remo conference to design the partition of Palestine, haughtily issuing "Israel's Magna Carta," and precipitating the Jerusalem Nebi-Musa riots of 1920-21.

It was not just the warmth and healthy winter climate that attracted the British gentry. The cost of living was lower there than in London, Belfast or Edinburgh, and if one had served her Majesty in one of her distant colonial outposts and remembered fondly being waited on by servants — and the cool tropical drinks out on the veranda — one could hire poor French peasants for a pittance. These were the years following Napoleon's ruin, when empirical overreach sank French fortunes in a foolhardy Russian winter campaign and then got mopped up and tossed into history's dustbin by Wellington and the Prussians.

To some British ex-pats, the Riviera was simply an escape from Victorian morals, a place for singles and gays to freak freely — as Somerset Maugham put it, "a sunny place for shady people."
 

 

Last week we listened to a Kunstlercast podcast in which James Howard Kunstler chatted with Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns.org.  The two mused at how estate prices had fallen in the rust belt and how easy it would be for aspiring youth and young families of like-minded kith and kin to move in, build collaborative, regenerative local economies while incurring zero debt, and even be supported in that reclamation process by the greater city, state and county taxsheds interested in recovering misallocated and stranded assets amid cascading petrocollapse.

Personally, we think climate change should be a major consideration. As we listened to scientist emeritus James Hansen in his Paris talks last month, we heard the urgency of his concern for sea level rise and took that to heart. But no one can say with certainty how fast an individual section of coastline will give itself up to the waves and that provides some comfort to coastal dwellers. Cities like Miami, New Orleans, Tokyo and Venice will squander billons to forestall the inevitable and for a while may even seem to succeed, only to lose it all in one spin of the wheel — a single bad day with some monster storm.

In Climate in Crisis (1990) we speculated that the hot interiors of continents were not going to be pleasant places in the coming years. With some exceptions, most will become dreadfully hot and water starved, subject to tornadoes, wildfires and even dust bowl conditions. The Pacific Northwest will be more wet, as will the American Southeast, but that also means much greater humidity and unless you can power air conditioning with renewable energy, not very happy places in warm times of the year. Mosquitoes and biting flies will love the change, and will proliferate too in thawing regions closer to the poles.   Much of the Amazon Basin (another lockbox of untapped viruses) is expected to desertify at 3 degrees above now, and that will alter rainfall patterns for a very large part of the world. Being on the Equator, their climate may begin to resemble the lower quadrant of Saudi Arabia in a few decades.

When we taught our most recent permaculture course in Iceland we thought that would be a lovely place for young people to settle and build ecovillages. Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, fits a similar mold. We used to think that might be a great place to relocate our family and maybe take up fishing. After watching earth.nullschool.net and the gigantic storm now churning through the Arctic, we have second thoughts.
 
One thinks of higher elevations as refuges, and indeed, some very spectacular real estate can be found in the Rockies, Alps and Snowy Mountains. Insofar as the rain-shadow effect of cross-mountain winds continues, these may provide some areas of refuge, albeit gradually shrinking. So may certain islands, if they rise up from the sea to secure elevations and can shelter from superstorms.
 
As refugees continue to pour north into Europe we are reminded what it may look like in these more comfortable microclimates like Southern France in the not distant future. Human numbers are already staggering, our fecundity rates show no sign of abating, and we add 220,000 to the number of us at procreating age, every day.

 
In the end, it matters not where we are. It matters who we are, and what we do with our knowledge and skills in the time we are given.
 

Through sunny fields
And valleys deep
Through noisy streets
And river's sweep

Although I may race
With the wind
I keep that quiet place
Within

My heart; a chamber
Safe and warm
To give you shelter
From the storm

 

— Gabriela Duricova

 

 

 

 

 

Here Comes the Sun

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Published on Peak Surfer on December 13, 2015

PeakSurfer

Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

"The COP agreed that the era of fossil energy is over. That is no longer in question. It will end by 2050, if not sooner. The question is how, and the Paris Agreement leaves that to fairy dust."

  At 7:27 pm Paris time (ECT), the President of the COP, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, gavelled the Paris Agreement home. The crowd stood, applauded and whooped. The text is here: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09.pdf

Success, it seemed to us, came because of the unions. They were not dockworkers or ironmongers. They were unions of countries with brands that read like corporate logos: AOSIS, ALBA, G77 Plus, High Ambition, the Like-Minded in favor of Kyoto Annexes, stealth-OPEC. No single effort could broker a deal unless it got the big unions on board. In the end ALBA and stealth-OPEC were too small to matter. The Like-Minded splintered in favor of the Ambitious. AOSIS and G77, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and High Ambition ruled.

In their 2 minute closer, Philippines noted it was the first time that the concept of Climate Justice appears in a legally binding document. In time, they hinted, the United States and other overdeveloped countries will be made to pay reparations to those who will lose all or substantial parts of their counties, including all that high-priced real estate in Rio, Capetown, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Consumerist Empires built on fossil energy may have an unusually large credit card statement coming at the end of the billing cycle.

Pluses and minuses in the new agreement: the 1.5C target is in, thanks to the efforts of UNFCCC head Christina Figueres to give a voice to civil society in these corridors. Five-year 'stocktakes' (Websters Dictionary please take note) — reassessment of progress and commitments — are in. Full phase-out of fossil energy by 2050 is not, but that door is not entirely closed and may be reopened at Marrakech next year.

"Each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition, reflecting its common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances."

What the text mandates, which is actually significant, is to "achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty."

Decarbonization by 2050 is no longer just a t-shirt. Now it's international law.

Bill McKibben said:

“Every government seems now to recognize that the fossil fuel era must end and soon. But the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done. Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry. This didn’t save the planet but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.”

350.org Executive director, May Boeve said:

“This marks the end of the era of fossil fuels. There is no way to meet the targets laid out in this agreement without keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground. The text should send a clear signal to fossil fuel investors: divest now.

The final text still has some serious gaps. We’re very concerned about the exclusion of the rights of indigenous peoples, the lack of finance for loss and damage, and that while the text recognizes the importance of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees C, the current commitments from countries still add up to well over 3 degrees of warming. These are red lines we cannot cross. After Paris, we’ll be redoubling our efforts to deliver the real solutions that science and justice demand.”

The thinktank E3G said,  “The transition to a low carbon economy is now unstoppable, ensuring the end of the fossil fuel age.”

Carbon Tracker said: “Fossil fuel companies will need to accept that they are an ex-growth stocks and must urgently re-assess their business plans accordingly.”

The Guardian called it "a victory for climate science and ultimate defeat for fossil fuels."

One piece of statescraft managed by Obama and Kerry was to neatly skirt what killed Kyoto: the 60 Neanderthals in the US Senate put there by the coal kings Koch Brothers. The New York Times spotted the play and reported:

Some elements of the accord would be voluntary, while others would be legally binding. That hybrid structure was specifically intended to ensure the support of the United States: An accord that would have required legally binding targets for emissions reductions would be legally interpreted as a new treaty, and would be required to go before the Senate for ratification.

Such a proposal would be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate, where many lawmakers question the established science of climate change, and where even more hope to thwart President Obama’s climate change agenda.
 

***

The accord uses the language of an existing treaty, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to put forth legally binding language requiring countries to verify their emissions, and to periodically put forth new, tougher domestic plans over time.

In just updating regulations enacted under an already ratified treaty, the Paris Agreement bypasses the need for new Senate ratification.

Inside Le Bourget, after the obligatory high fives and selfies, delegates crafted sound bytes for the press and kept the lights on and microphones active past midnight. Outside, 10,000 activists took to the streets to pull a "red line," representing 1.5 degrees, to the Arc de Triomphe.

French President Francois Hollande, who has a gift for hyperbole, said "History is made by those who commit, not those who calculate. Today you committed. You did not calculate." Although not in the way he meant it, this is ironically a first-rate assessment of the Agreement.

There is a quality of awareness among all the delegates to the Paris climate talks that, after 20 years of these discussions, is passing strange. We would not call it a deer-in-the-headlights look, because it is not even quite there yet. Those jockeying for the best outcome for their own economies and constituencies are still quite oblivious to the science of what is transpiring and the seriousness of the threat. They have their noses down in the trough and do not hear the butcher at the barn door.

This should not be surprising. Nowhere in the fossil record is there anything quite like what is transforming the world of humans today. Our physical brains are virtually the same as they were 30,000 years ago, when we were standing upright in the savannah, alert to proximate, not distant, threats and quickly obtained, not slowly exploited, resources.

We make ourselves ignorant in at least three ways: not knowing the basic science of climate change, not knowing what to do about it once we 
become aware of the problem, and being barraged with wrong information about both of those and being unable to distinguish fact from fiction.

We might think that a lamb raised in New Zealand and eaten in London would create more greenhouse gases than one being locally grown, but in the way the world works today, the opposite is true. We might think that going vegan is more climate responsible than raising farmed animals, but because of how pastured animals stock soils with carbon, the opposite can be true. We might think, as climate scientist James Hansen does, that low prices for gas cause more fossil fuels to be burned, but the opposite is true, because low prices keep whole provinces of production from being tapped.

When disciplined and deliberate attempts 
by profit-driven vested interests in the production of 
greenhouse gases cast doubt on science and corrupt politics and the media, grasping these nuances becomes even more difficult.

We are a lucky species in that our optimism is more-or-less hard-wired. People tend to be overly optimistic 
about their chances of having a happy marriage or avoiding illness. Young people are easily lured to join the military, become combat photographers, or engage in extreme-risk sports because they are unrealistically optimistic they can avoid harm. 
Humans are also overly optimistic about environmental risks. Our confirmation bias helps us keep up this optimism even when confronted with scientific truths to the contrary.

The principal outcome is less about the how than about the whether. The COP agreed that the era of fossil energy is over. That is no longer in question. It will end by 2050, if not sooner. The question is how, and the Paris Agreement leaves that to fairy dust.

The Guardian reports:

Throughout the week, campaigners have said the deal had to send a clear signal to global industry that the era of fossil fuels was ending. Scientists have seen the moment as career defining.

Carbon Tracker said:

“New energy technologies have become hugely cost-competitive in recent years and the effect of the momentum created in Paris will only accelerate that trend. The need for financial markets to fund the clean energy transition creates opportunity for growth on a scale not seen since the industrial revolution.”

What will replace fossil energy? The basket of renewables described by Jeremy Leggett in Winning the Carbon War? There is a slight problem there, and one wonders how long it will take for that to catch up to the delegates. Perhaps by the first stocktake, but maybe longer.

The problem, as often described on this site and elaborated in our book, the Post-Petroleum Survival Guide (2006), is net energy, or return on energy investment (EROEI), first elaborated by systems ecologist Howard T. Odum. These days the leading scientists in that field are calling it "biophysical economics."

To put it as simply as possible, the source of almost all our energy is the sun. When the EROEI of a resource is less than or equal to one, that energy source becomes a net "energy sink", and can no longer be used as a source of energy, but depending on the system might be useful for energy storage (for example a battery, or the tidal storage in Scotland). A fuel or energy must have an EROEI ratio of at least 3:1 to be considered viable as a prominent fuel or energy source. This chart shows typical values for various technologies.
 

Right now most of what powers the world comes from the top half of that chart. The Paris agreement suggests that most of what we need by 2050 must be selected from portions of the bottom half of the chart — the so-called "clean" energies." Quoth the prophet, Wikipedia:

Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that a falling EROEI in the Later Roman Empire was one of the reasons for the collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century CE. In "The Upside of Down" he suggests that EROEI analysis provides a basis for the analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations. Looking at the maximum extent of the Roman Empire, (60 million) and its technological base the agrarian base of Rome was about 1:12 per hectare for wheat and 1:27 for alfalfa (giving a 1:2.7 production for oxen). One can then use this to calculate the population of the Roman Empire required at its height, on the basis of about 2,500–3,000 calories per day per person. It comes out roughly equal to the area of food production at its height. But ecological damage (deforestation, soil fertility loss particularly in southern Spain, southern Italy, Sicily and especially north Africa) saw a collapse in the system beginning in the 2nd century, as EROEI began to fall. It bottomed in 1084 when Rome's population, which had peaked under Trajan at 1.5 million, was only 15,000. Evidence also fits the cycle of Mayan and Cambodian collapse too. Joseph Tainter suggests that diminishing returns of the EROEI is a chief cause of the collapse of complex societies, this has been suggested as caused by peak wood in early societies. Falling EROEI due to depletion of high quality fossil fuel resources also poses a difficult challenge for industrial economies.

When we hear pleas from underdeveloping countries for greater financial assistance to allow them to adapt — meaning building out renewable energy and migrating coastal cities inland — we have to ask ourselves if they really comprehend what they will need to adapt to, and whether any amount of money will ever be enough. The status quo ante – the way things worked before — is gone, and so is the modo omnia futura. One hundred billion dollars per year is not enough to save human beings as a species but asking for more won't help, either. What might help is committing to degrowth, depopulation, and scaling back our human footprint to something closer to what we had coming out of the last Ice Age, before we started building monumental cities, mining metal, and inventing writing. We don't need to abandon writing, but lets get real — those megacities may be unsalvageable on a solar budget.

Dr. Guy McPherson writes:

Astrophysicists have long believed Earth was near the center of the habitable zone for humans. Recent research published in the 10 March 2013 issue of Astrophysical Journal indicates Earth is on the inner edge of the habitable zone, and lies within 1% of inhabitability (1.5 million km, or 5 times the distance from Earth to Earth’s moon). A minor change in Earth’s atmosphere removes human habitat. Unfortunately, we’ve invoked major changes.

This discussion seems strangely absent, despite the pushback against Saudi Arabia and India after they succeeded in excluding the substantive recommendations of the Structured Expert Dialogue from the COP. They were not allowed to dump the provisions on transparency and uniform accounting, although it was not for lack of effort.

Instead, we keep hearing reference to an outdated and unfortunate IPCC number — the bent straw everyone is grasping for — that to have a 50-50 chance of limiting warming to 2°C (itself untenably overheated), cumulative emissions to end of century and beyond must be limited to 1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide in total, starting 5 years ago. In that past five years we burned through one tenth – 100 Gt. Most predict that with added growth (a big assumption) we’ll have burned through 75% of this "budget" by 2030 and we’ll bust the budget around 2036. If we cut back, we might have until 2060.

Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace said, "We have a 1.5C wall to climb but the ladder is not tall enough." But he acknowledged, “As a result of what we have secured here we will win… for us Paris was always a stop on an ongoing journey… I believe we are now in with a serious chance to succeed.”

Glen Peters, scientist at CICERO, said 1.5C effectively requires a fossil fuel phase-out by 2030. He later clarified that was without negative emissions or the immediate introduction of a global carbon price, which are some of the assumptions in 1.5C models. His personal view was chances of achieving 1.5C were “extremely slim.”

Will voluntary pledges, revisited every five years starting in 2023 be enough to cut emissions and hold to the budget? It is the wrong question. That budget does not exist. Closer scrutiny of embedded systemic feedbacks reveal we'd blown though any possible atmospheric buffer zone by the 1970s and have just been piling on carbon up there every since.

The Atlantic today reports:

Recent science has indicated that warming to two degrees, still the stated international red line, might be catastrophic, creating mega-hurricanes and possibly halting the temperate jet stream which waters American and European farmland.

From that perspective, 1.5 degrees is an encouraging, ambitious goal. But it’s also a promise that costs negotiators nothing while indicating great moral seriousness.

Because here’s the thing: The math still doesn’t work. 2015 is the hottest year on measure. Because of the delay between when carbon enters the atmosphere and when it traps heat, we are nearly locked into nearly 1.5 degrees of warming already. Many thought the world would abandon the two degree target at Paris due to its impracticality.

Once we apply honestly science-based Earth system sensitivity at equilibrium, excluding none of the feedbacks and forcings that we know of, we discover we passed the 2°C target in 1978. To hold at 2 degrees we would need to bring CO2 concentration down to 334 ppm, not increase it to 450 as the Paris Agreement contemplates. To hold at 1.5°C we would need to vacuum the atmosphere even lower, to a level last seen some time before mid-20th century.

Outside of elite scientists such as those we've mentioned this past week — Anderson, Schellnhuber, Rockstrom, Hansen, Wasdell, and Goreau — few in Le Bourget seem to grasp some simple arithmetic. And so we are treated to the spectacle of fossil producers like India, Russia, Saudi Arabia and many of the underdeveloping countries demanding more time to fill up the available atmospheric space, when in reality there is none and hasn't been for quite some time.

Some say the UN is hamstrung by multilateral consensus, but voting would be no better. After the COP meeting in Durban, the UNFCCC adopted a traditional South African negotiating format to speed up decision-making and bring opposing countries together. The Guardian's John Vidal explains:

Zulu and Xhosa communities use “indabas” to give everyone equal opportunity to voice their opinions in order to work toward consensus.

They were first used in UN climate talks in Durban in 2011 when, with the talks deadlocked and the summit just minutes from collapse, the South African presidency asked the main countries to form a standing circle in the middle of hundreds of delegates and to talk directly to each other.

Instead of repeating stated positions, diplomats were encouraged to talk personally and quietly about their “red lines” and to propose solutions to each other.

By including everyone and allowing often hostile countries to speak in earshot of observers, it achieved a remarkable breakthrough within 30 minutes.

In Paris the indaba format was used by France to narrow differences between countries behind closed doors. It is said to have rapidly slimmed down a ballooning text with hundreds of potential points of disagreements.

By Wednesday with agreement still far away, French prime minister Laurent Fabius further refined the indaba by splitting groups into two.

“It is a very effective way to streamline negotiations and bridge differences. It has the advantage of being participatory yet fair”, said one West African diplomat. “It should be used much more when no way through a problem can be found.”

What may need to happen next year in Marrakech is that the COP host an indaba with experts both in the climate sciences and in biophysical economics.

What may hold out the best hope lies buried 20 pages in, at Article 4:

In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.

Article 5:

1. Parties should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases as referred to in Article 4, paragraph 1(d), of the Convention, including forests.

2. Parties are encouraged to take action to implement and support, including through results-based payments, the existing framework as set out in related guidance and decisions already agreed under the Convention for: policy approaches and positive incentives for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries; and alternative policy approaches, such as joint mitigation and adaptation approaches for the integral and sustainable management of forests, while reaffirming the importance of incentivizing, as appropriate, non-carbon benefits associated with such approaches.

It is not yet clear whether integrated food and fuel sequenced permaculturally designed forests, composed of mixed aged, mixed species robust ecologies and maximum carbon sequestration though biomass-to-biochar energy and agriculture systems will be scaled fast enough, but these two articles could be the spark they need to spur investment.

As the clock ticked on towards end of day, the leader of the High Ambition group, Tony de Blum, introduced to the plenary an 18-year-old girl from Majuro who spoke of water gradually rising on three sides of her home.

"The coconut leaf I wear in my hair and hold up in my hand is from my home in the Marshall Islands. I wear them today in hope of keeping them for my children and my grandchildren — a symbol, these simple strands of coconut leaves that I wear. … Keep these leaves and give them to your children, and tell them a story — of how you helped my islands and the whole world today. This agreement is for those of us whose identity, whose culture, whose ancestors, whose whole being, is bound to their lands. I have only spoken about myself and my islands but the same story will play out everywhere in the world."

Brian Davey responds to Giorgos Kallis on Degrowth

Off the keyboard of Brian Davey

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Published on FEASTA on January 14, 2015

degrowth

Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

Note: This discussion started with Brian Davey’s review of the book Degrowth: A vocalabulary for a New Era. One of the book’s editors, Giorgos Kallis, wrote a detailed reponse. The text below is Brian’s reply.

To start my reply let me take you up on this part of your response where you write:

‘“Political” in Castoriadis’ terms means the pre-paradigmatic view that humans make their own history, and they are not subject to immutable, outside forces that pre-determine their fates, and to which the best that they can do is adapt.’

Thus stated it is hard to disagree – for if I were to disagree then it would seem as if I see humans as automatons with pre-determined destinies. But this conclusion is an outcome of the way that your sentence is written. By definition anyone subject to “immutable forces” and a “pre-determined fate” can do no more than “adapt”, fit in – and lose their freedom.

But what if history involves humans making their own destiny in conditions not of their own choosing? And what if these conditions, while not “immutable”, are not actually very favourable to their purposes either? What if the conditions in which people make their destiny are a little bit more “fuzzy” – not exactly “immutable”, but not very “mutable” either? What if the conditions are something in between? What if people do not “adapt” to the conditions they find themselves in but “respond” to them? “Adapting” implies accepting the conditions as a given and fitting in with them. The word “responding” carries no such implication – it can mean, as ‘conditions’ become more fluid, that people become freer to pursue entirely new ideas and novel purposes.

The conditions that all humans face in “making our history” vary in how much scope they allow for success in a variety of different endeavours, including new and innovative ones. We have degrees of freedom or, put the other way round, we face varying limits to our power to make history according to our intended purposes. In part this depends on who “we” are. If the people referred to are those billions of people without significant purchasing power, without well-connectedness in high places, without the power to influence the mass media and state policy then “this we” may only have ‘proximal power’, the ability to influence the things and people close to them. That is unless the the powerless mass becoming part of a broader movement that starts to take practical and coherent steps to live differently. Others – like “the 1%” – currently have “distal power”. They have a much greater ability to influence events, and indeed are able to frame the circumstances or conditions in which “the 99%” are forced to act – so that they end up largely working for the benefit of the 1%.

However, no part of humanity has unlimited power to do just as it wishes. Any individual, group or society that overestimates its power – and then attempts to use it in a way disproportionate to conditions will eventually become unstuck. To use a religious and mythical metaphor, they will be punished by the Goddess Nemesis whose role is to take revenge on those who overstep their limits.
The question for each individual, for each group and for all of society, is where are these limits? Unfortunately it is often not at all easy to see them. Indeed the more powerful that an individual, a group or a society is, the more it inclines to arrogance and the overestimation of its own power, to optimism bias and then to hubris.

The so called “Serenity prayer” expresses this variability in the conditions and the difficulty of recognising limits:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

It seems to be a recurrent narrative in the history of humanity that powerful people fail to have the wisdom to know the difference and they can pull, not only themselves, but the rest of society into a catastrophe as they overreach – for example miscalculations leading to wars – or overstepping the limits to economic growth, pulling the global economy and society into overshoot and collapse.

As you suggest Giorgos in such hubristic situations it is typical that the most powerful people who share the greatest responsibility for disaster are also best protected and at first escape the consequences that first fall on more vulnerable people. I don’t disagree with you on that or your comments about people like Richard Branson.

What I do take issue with is the idea that if one says that growth will come to an end anyway then one is ipso facto “a survivalist”, that one is “ a-political” and that one is inadvertently “hiding the fact” that “we” are not all equally responsible or equally vulnerable. I can’t see that those conclusions follow inevitably at all. If that is meant as a description of my point of view then it is not one that I recognise.

It seems that for you, the very acknowledgement that the growth process could come to an end anyway, whatever anyone does,

“…opens the potential for authoritarian responses to save “us” from disaster; and it is politically disempowering and demobilizing, as it suggests that we can do nothing to change the system and its trajectory, only prepare and “survive with our peers”.

I would prefer to say instead that “…. AT THIS TIME in most countries we cannot do very much to change the system and change its trajectory except assist the early victim of the crisis and thereby sow the seeds and prepare the ground for later. At this later time changing conditions are likely to make the political situation more fluid and open to wider political purposes when “our seed projects” mature and network into a new kind of system as the old one disintegrates…”

The point is that we make history not in conditions of our own choosing but that those conditions vary from place to place and they also change change, not necessarily through our own actions. What’s more the conditions can change in ways that open up a greater freedom to make history. However it also leads to greater dangers if we make the wrong choices through clinging to what is no longer viable.

This is indeed a route along which there is a lot of conflict and it is not at all clear to me which are the best and most appropriate choices to make. There are a lot of difficult decisions and no doubt one of the choices is how much to engage in politics, how much to try to organise communities around projects and social and ecological enterprise and how much to try and go it alone, survivalist style. Speaking personally I don’t see much purpose in the last choice but I certainly not advocate a choice of “only” preparing to “survive with our peers”.

It’s been one of the features of the Transition Movement that it is NOT “only” about survival but also about re-creating community, recreating creativity and seeking to create a life that would be worth living. I myself helped set up and ran a community garden which was never “only” to help people to survive. We’ve had plenty of parties, meals on the grass and among the trees in the summer, festivals at harvest time, community building, art, creating a beautiful place. There is nothing that makes it inevitable that the responses to an involuntary breakdown would involve adapting to a worse situation. After the fear and the trauma of change, after the loss of control, after the breakdowns it might be better for some people, perhaps even for a majority. (I don’t know because I don’t have a magic ball to tell the future with).

The fact is that we are talking about such a vast process in so many different places facing so many different people it’s going to be hard to generalise meaningfully. But please let’s take off the rose tinted spectacles. At the recent Leipzig conferences I heard academics lecturing on degrowth as an opportunity for the promotion of new “concrete utopias” and it really bugged me. It seems that you have the same sort of idea when you write:

“A social change, if it is to take place, requires desire, materialized into an alternative political vision, a vision driven by a quest for the enjoyment of life, not by fear of a looming disaster, or a pure survivalist spirit.”

Giorgos, I don’t accept your simple ‘either–or’ choice. I don’t buy this kind of psychology. For me it’s more complex than that, and more paradoxical. I’m all in favour of enjoying life where it’s possible but the peculiar thing is that people often grow and lead fuller and richer lives when they face the worse that can happen and learn and grow as a result. That has been the discovery of those who work with people who have a terminal illness:

“When we face the worst that can happen in any situation, we grow. When circumstances are at their worst, we grow. When we find the true meaning of these lessons, we also find happy meaningful lives. Not perfect, but authentic. We can live life profoundly.”

[1]

Note that this is not chiefly or at all about how we are going to realise our desires, it is about how we are going to live authentically. They are not necessarily the same thing. Growing as a human being eventually involves accepting that one cannot live all of one’s desires – and it almost certainly will in a degrowth society.

If there is a looming disaster then I think we have to say so, even if, at first, this spoils the party. It seems to me entirely appropriate to fear a disaster if a disaster is threatened – and one is certainly “looming” in the case of climate change. Not talking about extremely dangerous climate change because it would create fear and frighten people away would be denial and avoidance as part of a political strategy.

Implied in what you write seems to be an assumption that we should not emphasise things that might frighten. It is preferential to have messages that are uplifting. For myself I am weary of uplifting messages. The plan is going to be achieved, our troops are holding the line, our regulations are the best in the world, the economy is recovering, technology will solve the climate crisis, the government will make sure everything is OK.

….and now you want to tell people “The degrowth society will realise your desires.”?

Sorry. I don’t believe in the “concrete utopias” dreamed by academics. Let’s simply tell the truth instead – what humanity is doing to the eco-system is close to catastrophic. On current trends, the poor will probably die first but it won’t be nice for anyone – even, eventually the psychopaths who govern us. If we degrow the economy it might help avert this global tragedy. It will be difficult and chaotic and there might sometimes be time to party. Perhaps it won’t be all bad. We actually don’t know because nothing quite like this has happened before in history so we’ve no precedents. However, it’s often likely to be very difficult.

Is it really so outlandish to simply tell the truth? This was a famous speech that an English politician, Winston Churchill made early in world war two. It was recognised at the time and afterwards as being an inspirational speech but it certainly wasn’t inspirational because it was about realising desire.

“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”

This was inspirational because it was true.

By comparison the challenge of degrowth at national and global levels may be even more daunting. We need to be realistic. Consider this excerpt from a paper on psychological strategies to cope with the threat of a 4 degree increase in global temperatures by Clive Hamilton and psychologist Tim Kasser:

“The research literature on death reflection (the more thoughtful and prolonged engagement with death) suggests that an open and wide-ranging public debate over questions of mortality and survival would make recourse to maladaptive coping strategies less attractive (Kasser 2009). More conscious reflection on mortality would also encourage more pro-social and less materialistic goals. At present most governments and environmental organisations adopt a “don’t scare the horses”
approach, fearful that exposing people fully to the scientific predictions will immobilise them. With climate scientists now stressing the need for extremely urgent action and spelling out more catastrophic impacts if action is inadequate, this now seems to us a dangerous approach to undertake.”

[2]

So, as you can see, here are scientists who, basing themselves on research about motivations and values, come to a position that appears very different from yours. That’s not to rule out giving thought to how we are going to enjoy life “on the way down” but it does point to a potential danger in perspectives that put “realising desire” at the centre. As Hamilton and Kasser point out, the major “maladaptive coping strategy” that people adopt, when confronted short term with uncomfortable emotions like anxiety because of environmental threats, is “pleasure seeking”.

Now let me turn to your comment and question:

“Note also your own contradiction. If climate disaster, degrowth and whatever else the future holds for us is “involuntary” and the best we can do is to become “resilient” in “transition towns”, then what is the point of an international “cap and share”, like the one you propose, or any other mitigation action for that matter? Cap-and-share is a voluntary, and deeply political action, for which people would have to be seriously mobilized and organized to get it institutionalized. How would this ever be done without a positive, political vision about the future? And why do it, if the future is pre-determined?”

That’s a perfectly valid question and, as I was, for a long time, involved in promoting cap and share, I asked myself something somewhat similar – though not exactly the same. The point is though that I have never regarded the future as pre-determined as I already explained. I do not know for sure what the future holds and my experience of life has been one in which plenty of unexpected things have happened. The future is one of “strong uncertainty”. That being the case, if you re-read my comments on your book carefully, you will notice that I envisage two possibilities – one where the degrowth process is largely involuntary and the other where it is more of a voluntary process because of the emergence of political forces that actually promote it – for example, driving the process of degrowth through policies like cap and share.

The point is that, at the moment, it seems to me that, the process of degrowth is likely to start more as an involuntary process to which people and groups must respond. However as it proceeds, if the responses are successful and networked, then the response networks might be able to accumulate political influence and power which might make it possible to start to drive the process more directly. That process is further along in places like Greece than most other places and the situation has change there.

So part of my answer to your question is that situations can change. A process that starts off largely involuntarily can end up steered more directly and cap and share might then be adopted along that road.

When? Again I don’t know. In the next 1, 5, 10, 15, 30 years?

You will note here that a part of my answer to your question is to note the varying conditions in different countries – in some countries at this time a policy for voluntary degrowth appears to be more of a possibility. In others this is not so. Political-economic conditions vary tremendously. I am sure that part of our difference reflects our different experiences in our different countries. At the time of my writing this I am reading about the possibility that Syriza could win in elections that are called early. As a grass roots party it makes sense for Syriza to have a programme for the transformation of society here and now – in Britain where I am the situation is totally different.

Now let me turn to “depense”. I must admit a bit of me does wonder if the idea of depense is in some way connected to the Euro zone crisis in that it allows the “green left” to connect to a mood of defiance among people in southern europe. This is a question to which you will better know the answer than me? Does “depense” have a function in matching the emotional reaction of many people southern Europe to dictats from Northern eurozone creditors?

Is this the kind of idea: “So what if you lent our governing elite a lot of money and now they can’t service the debts? So what if our corrupt elite has squandered what they bought on euro credit and now our country can’t pay it back? Your efficiently produced products, your exports that our elites borrowed Euros to buy, need to be used rather than accumulated. We have to destroy capital to prevent destructive growth. But the good life, the dolce vita – belongs to all of us, not just our governing elite so we are going to protect and cherish our festivals and our feasts. It’s something that we know how to do here in southern Europe better than you constipated workaholics in the north. So, even though we are prepared to accept personal frugality, take your hands off our right to have a good life together and stop insisting that we have to save and invest to compete with you, when it leads to ecological destruction anyway.”

Once again I emphasise that I am asking an exploratory question. It is not accepting or rejecting the depense idea it is trying to exploring where it might have come from. I write “might” because I am trying to explore whether there are other collective emotional roots for why this idea be given prominence at this time. If it is accepted that depense has an emotionally cathartic role then it seems to me legitimate to explore possible emotional roots in other directions too. Of course I might be wrong, I often am. It’s my imaginary at work I suppose and my imaginary is sometimes pure imagination and nothing else.

I want to repeat here that my first concern was to try to understand depense and I was not sure that I had understood it, partly perhaps, because a ‘new idea’ requires more space than was available given the constraints of chapter length that you put upon your authors. Now you tell me that I have understood it I’ve got to admit that I have still not made up my mind – although I do incline to scepticism. This is because although I can understand the idea that accumulation of the surplus product would lead to growth, I doubt that you would ever be able to administer this idea as a policy. If you accept that energy sources will be shrinking involuntarily then, as I explained, all sorts of systems and interest groups will be claiming resources so as to prevent complex systems breaking down as contraction occurs. Buildings will need maintenance, computer networks will need maintaining, health systems will be under pressure, power grids will be having brown outs, vehicles, roads and rail will need repair. And there will simply be less and less to do each of these things. In this context a strategy of deliberately “wasting resources” “to prevent growth”, when the resources are dwindling anyway, would not be very popular and doesn’t seem to me to make much sense. So it depends on how you see the conditions “on the road ahead”. If the global economy can continue growing for the next thirty years and this is a policy for a movement of opposition to that further growth then you’ve got more of a case. However, I think that there is likely to be a claim on resources, not to grow the economy but to slow a descent into chaos – and hopefully a transition to more locally low energy lifestyles lived in and though the network of projects that we envisage.

At the same time I also accept that the process of degrowth whether voluntary or involuntary will be emotionally difficult so it make sense to devote a part of the surplus to events that bring people together, that celebrate and that make life worth living – rather than devote all resources to “fire fighting”, emergency responses and the maintenance of crumbling technical systems. At the time of writing I have just read an article about Donezk and the Ukraine in the latest copy of Der Spiegel. The sub title of the article makes the point that I think is important:

“The Opera of Donezk is performing Rigoletto, without money and with only half a cast. But all 970 seats are sold out because the yearning for beauty in the middle of the war is so great”

A final point on resilience – I think that you are under-emphasising the importance of resilience as well as the sophistication of the people who have theorised what resilience is and how it fits into the bigger picture of social, economic and ecological change.

There is a “Resilience Alliance” of academics from different disciplines that has developed a theory called “Panarchy” which is not at all static and has influenced my thinking a lot. In their approach ecological and economic realities evolve cyclically in three dimensions – productivity, interdependence and vulnerability/resilience. Mature systems lose their resilience because of their huge complexity and interdependencies so that when “hub interdependencies” break down problems cascade through entire systems which may then collapse. (Think of hub interdependencies like the money system, the electric power system, the internet or public health). A collapse is a break down of complexity and interdependency which then creates opportunities – if you like the space – for pioneering species in an ecological system, or pioneering projects and pioneering institutions in an emergent new social system. When these pioneers start to grow together, to network and develop new shared infrastructures and institutions, then a new system begins to emerge. That’s the process that I’m trying to envisage here using Panarchical concepts.

Featured image: Roman statue of Nemesis from Eygpt, 2nd century AD. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_Nemesis_Louvre_Ma4873.jpg

Endnotes

1. Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler. “Life Lessons. How our Mortality can teach us about Life and Living” Simon and Schuster 2000 p25
2. Clive Hamilton and Tim Kasser “ Psychological Adaptation to the Threats and stresses of a Four Degree world” A paper for “Four Degrees and Beyond” conference, Oxford University 28-30 September 2009

Degrowth

Off the keyboard of Brian Davey

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Published on December 18, 2014 on FEASTA

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Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

Degrowth – A Vocabulary for a New Era: Review

Degrowth. A Vocabulary for a New Era, just published by Routledge, is quite a slim volume of 220 pages and 51 short chapters.

Before anything else it seems important to say that there are lots of chapters in this book that I think are quite excellent as short pithy descriptions of the key concepts of degrowth. If in this review I have not mentioned many of these chapters it is usually because I have no quarrel with the choice of the word or phrase, the way that is elucidated, the way that it is related to the other words and combined with a short reading list. An attempt has been made by the editors and by the individual authors to relate the words in the vocabulary together so that they are not isolated chapters about stand alone ideas. This puts the idea of “Degrowth” on the intellectual map as a wide ranging discourse, a movement of thinkers about the future of society that needs to be taken seriously…and yet….

…because it is supposed to be a “vocabulary” of degrowth my inclination has been to try to get an idea of which words and concepts relating to degrowth the authors consider to be important enough to be given explanatory chapters, and then to compare this choice of concepts with the vocabularies used by other analysts. Do the words that have been chosen for inclusion cover the constellation of concepts which match the range and types of degrowth ideas that there are and the degrowth idea as I have understood it?

In fact there is only a partial overlap with my own ideas. In this review I will try to explain some of the differences.

No chapter on climate change

http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/01/140122_FT_Degrowth.png.CROP.original-original.pngOn this first point the most striking absence is that there is no specific chapter for climate change. Although climate change is mentioned throughout there is no chapter for the topic as such.

In their introduction to the book the editors write that one of the “foundational degrowth claims” is “the inevitability of disastrous climate change if growth is to continue”. One would think that, if this is such a central issue, it requires proper elucidation. Perhaps the editors thought people would already know about climate change and there was no need to cover it. However this is not really what I am getting at. I am not stating a case for a thumbnail sketch of elementary climate science; I am arguing for an exploration of how the climate crisis contextualises the way one perceives degrowth. For example, given the policy failure of the growth enthusiasts to mitigate climate change at the rate and scale required is “degrowth” now, in any case, too late? If degrowth ideas are not too late, then how much time is left to implement them? Exactly how desperate is the situation that the degrowth agenda is supposed to address? A related question is “how quickly must degrowth proceed, how deep must it be and how could it possibly be delivered?”

It is now widely recognised by people involved in climate politics that only with a level of CO2 in the atmosphere of under 350 parts per million, perhaps much less, will the planet be safe from runaway climate change. Since the actual level of CO2 in the atmosphere is nearly 396 parts per million we are already well on the way to a catastrophe in the absence of emergency action. I have always assumed that a core rationale for degrowth was to be found here.

Degrowth could be driven by climate policy

http://blogs.worldwatch.org/sustainableprosperity/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/degrowthVsGrowth-Desazkundea.jpgNot only that – in my own vision for degrowth, and I guess for others associated with Feasta, degrowth would actually be ‘driven’ by an adequate climate policy. Many chapters in this book draw attention to the role of energy as central to the metabolism of the economy. Most of that energy is currently derived from fossil fuels so if there is a mechanism to screw down the available fossil energy entering the economy it should be possible to force an amount of degrowth on the economy appropriate to averting catastrophe.

To use an metaphor – we need a climate policy regime that is akin to the process of turning down the tap through which carbon fuels enter the economy until no more carbon energy is available to be burned. Were the political will there, and the general political support for degrowth, this would be easy to administer. One would simply require all companies that extract fossil fuel to have permits for the tonnage of carbon in the fuel that they extract before they are allowed to sell this tonnage. Some agency would limit the tonnage of carbon permitted out of the ground each year and would only make available for sale a rapidly reducing number of permits. The money that the fossil fuel companies paid to buy the permits would be distributed on an equitable basis to the general population. That’s called “cap and share” and if I had edited a book on degrowth then ‘cap and share’ and/or similar climate policies would have a chapter as the driver of any voluntary degrowth process.

Voluntary and involuntary degrowth

I write “voluntary degrowth process” because there is an argument that I think ought to have been explored in this book that degrowth will mainly be an involuntary process. Let me try and explain what I see as being the difference.

http://clubfordegrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/450px-Degrowth_strategies.jpgBy “voluntary degrowth” I mean a vision for the future that is promoted because it is regarded as preferable to a growth economy. It is preferable, for example, because it encompasses a number of proposals for change that get no attention in the growth economy where more output is seen as the solution for all problems. An example would be Ivan Illiich’s tools for conviviality – creating the kind of tools that would make possible “space for relationships, recognition, pleasure and generally living well, and thereby, reducing the dependence on an industrial and consumerist system” as Marco Deriu explains in his chapter. Thus what I might term “voluntary degrowth” is a mainly French idea that is sometimes termed “décroissance conviviale”, a cultural and social critique of society – an alternative “imaginary” of how society might be.

By “involuntary degrowth” I mean a view of the future that the production economy will contract anyway, whether we like it or not, perhaps in a chaotic fashion, perhaps through collapse, so that the task of the degrowth movement is to prepare for, and ameliorate, that contraction as best as we can. It is not so much communities and societies making a choice against growth – but communities finding means to cope with difficulties that they will inevitably face when the economy contracts anyway. For example the Transition Movement (that is barely mentioned in this book) has had an idea that “energy descent” is going to happen in the near future and that it is an urgent task to prepare communities so that they will be able to cope.

Now in trying to cope with this process that people like me think will happen anyway the Transition Movement have had a strong idea of making the most of the situation. They have wanted to “make a virtue out of necessity” and to look for the silver linings around the storm clouds. There is the suggestion that people might be surprised to find that the quality of life might actually be better. The Transition Movement thus works towards the revival of community, relationships and different kinds of creativity too. The kinds of projects advocated for – like urban gardening – are the same as for décroissance conviviale. However, the starting point is not a choice for a different kind of society compared with the growth economy – so much as making the best of what will happen in the difficult conditions associated with future contraction.

To my mind it is a weakness of this book that it does not draw out and emphasise these distinctions enough. In fact different kinds of future are possible. Thus we can consider the possibility that involuntary degrowth happens (in the sense of a contraction of material production) but not quickly enough to reduce carbon emissions at an adequate pace. In this situation cap and share to drive a faster pace of emissions reduction – and a process of voluntary degrowth of material production would still be needed to speed up the involuntary contraction.

Reducing the allowable extraction of fossil fuels in order to leave most fuels in the ground would degrow the economy. However, on its own this is unlikely to be enough to avert runaway climate change. That’s because CO2 is already over the limit and any more will add to the danger. So a lot of CO2 will have to be taken out of the atmosphere. This is another urgent future task. However, any draw-down of CO2 will probably only be possible, if at all, by extensive land reclamation and re-vegetation, locking up the CO2 in biomass – using ecological design methods (like permaculture). In my view draw-down or sequestration ought to be another idea with a chapter. It isn’t. There is no consideration of enhancing carbon sinks.

http://www.barcelona.degrowth.org/uploads/media/maclurcan.jpg

Overshoot and collapse – some more missing words

https://panosz.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/degrowth.jpgOf course academics at the University of Barcelona, who have played a leading role bringing this book together cannot be expected to know everything but the failure to address these urgent practical issues is serious. Or that is my point of view anyway. We need to remind ourselves that the original authors of the 1972 Club of Rome sponsored study “Limits to Growth” worked with a model in which growth could continue for some time beyond the carrying capacity of the planet in a phase that they termed “overshoot”. Overshoot was analogous to living beyond ones personal means by running down the family savings or running up debts. It can be thought of as a delay in adaptation to ecological realities which would mean that eventual adjustment, when it comes, will be that much more of a shock. An overshoot that goes on too long eventually leads to collapse – a chaotic reduction in complexity likely to involve a great deal of insecurity. You can think of collapse as involuntary degrowth and it is much more serious than stagnation, recession or even depression. That’s because it is a much longer and irreversible process of transformation in humanity’s relationship with the planet likely to be associated with rising death rates and falling populations. Unfortunately words like “overshoot”, “collapse” or “involuntary degrowth” are not part of the vocabulary either. To my perception this “vocabulary” lacks a continuity with the “Limits to Growth” thinkers of 1972. It is a southern European and French choice of words even though the book is written in English.

Many of the actions and policies that are proposed under the heading of “degrowth” might conceivably help in a collapse – but one feels that most of the authors in this book do not conceive their proposals for action as emergency measures. They are not being proposed as survival arrangements; they are still being proposed in an alternative paradigm in a future which is rather like the present. They are being framed on the assumption that “developed economies” are entering “a period of systemic stagnation” in which “an abandonment of growth will revive politics and nourish democracy, rather than animate catastrophic passions” as it says in the introduction. I find this framing to be rather too complacent.

Not all of the contributors share the same ideas. Christian Kerschner has written the chapter on peak oil (and other resource peaks). He thinks “Economic degrowth is no longer an option but a reality”. For him it is starting to happen involuntarily.

Another author not on the editors’ wavelength is Alevguel Sorman who has written the chapter on ‘Societal Metabolism’. Sorman concludes “ The biophysical view of social metabolism warns about the limitations of degrowth strategies based on voluntarily consuming fewer resources, less energy or less capital. These will not suffice on their own”. In particular Sorman warns against the assumptions of many thinkers that worksharing will enable a trade of income in exchange for more free time because “In a future scarce in energy we will have to work more, not less”.

There is also an indirect and partial consideration of collapse in a chapter by Serge Latouche titled the “Pedagogy of Disaster”. This is a discussion about whether future disasters will allow a sociopathic elite to exploit the vulnerability of shocked, disorientated and frightened people ( ‘disaster capitalism’) or whether the coming shocks will shake people free of their complacency so that they wake up in time to forestall an even worse future. Latouche concludes that both are possible, depending on context.

An version of degrowth flawed by optimism bias?

http://theoverthinker.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/lemmings.jpgOne way of summarising these points is to say that the editors have drawn together a mainly optimistic version of degrowth. It is not a view that I share. I find it is interesting to contrast the approach of the editors with the attitude of Dennis Meadows, a surviving member of the ‘Limits to Growth’ study of 1972. Meadows stopped believing that humanity would be able to adequately respond to the limits to growth crisis in the 1990s and feels that a collapse is now inevitable.

“In 1972 there were two possible options provided for going forward — overshoot or sustainable development. Despite myriad conferences and commissions on sustainable development since then, the world opted for overshoot. The two-leggeds hairless apes did what they always have done. They dominated and subdued Earth. Faced with unequivocable evidence of an approaching existential threat, they equivocated and then attempted to muddle through.

Global civilization will only be the first of many casualties of the climate the Mother Nature now has coming our way at a rate of change exceeding any comparable shift in the past 3 million years, save perhaps the meteors or super volcanoes that scattered our ancestors into barely enough breeding pairs to be able to revive. This change will be longer lived and more profound than many of those phenomena. We have fundamentally altered the nitrogen, carbon and potassium cycles of the planet. It may never go back to an ecosystem in which bipedal mammals with bicameral brains were possible. Or, not for millions of years”.

Graham Turner, an Australian academic has now done 30 and a 40 year follow-ups to see how the business as usual predictions of the 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ computer model compare with what actually happened. He concludes that they are pretty much on target – and that the turning point will occur in 2015.

“With significant capital subsequently going into resource extraction, there is insufficient available to fully replace degrading capital within the industrial sector itself. Consequently, despite heightened industrial activity attempting to satisfy multiple demands from all sectors and the population, actual industrial output per capita begins to fall precipitously, from about 2015, while pollution from the industrial activity continues to grow. The reduction of inputs to agriculture from industry, combined with pollution impacts on agricultural land, leads to a fall in agricultural yields and food produced per capita. Similarly, services (e.g., health and education) are not maintained due to insufficient capital and inputs.

“Diminishing per capita supply of services and food cause a rise in the death rate from about 2020 (and somewhat lower rise in the birth rate, due to reduced birth control options). The global population therefore falls, at about half a billion per decade, starting at about 2030. Following the collapse, the output of the World3 model for the standard run shows that average living standards for the aggregate population (material wealth, food and services per capita) resemble those of the early 20th century.[1]

The distinction between voluntary and involuntary transitions matters. Without a transition that is at least partly involuntary it is highly unlikely that sufficient people will voluntarily adjust their lifestyles in the directions that degrowthers see as vital. At the same time what we are describing an unpleasant historical epoch in which death rates will be rising.

Risk aversion, prospect theory and the collapse of lifestyle packages

http://thetyee.cachefly.net/Life/2010/05/04/Degrowth.jpgIn order to understand the inertia in current systems and peoples reluctance to change their lives towards degrowth the work of Daniel Kahnemann is helpful.

Kahnemann’s “prospect theory” is another idea absent from this book. It shows that people organise their lives around ‘reference points’ and are very “risk averse” when it comes to retreating away from those reference points. A reference point might be something like the income level to which one has grown accustomed and therefore the amount that one spends in day to day life, the expenditure associated with a lifestyle that is more or less adjusted to the income. My interpretation of this is that a fall in income is not welcome not only because one has less but because the organisation, the management of life’s details, must be adjusted so as to create an adjusted expenditure pattern and this requires thought and attention. One spends less money but spends more time thinking about what one spends money on. This is unwelcome extra mental effort. For a significant change one must adjust a whole pattern of hourly, daily and weekly purchases with possible consequences for habitat, relationships, routine transport arrangements etc.

It is all very well to write, as the editors do in their epilogue, that scarcity is social, and that society can produce more than enough for our basic needs – but that does not address the main issue that people worry about when they manage their day to day lives. This is how to maintain their “lifestyle package” in sufficient balance so that their lives are not at risk of descending into chaos. Most individuals whose lives are in balance will be living in a set of circumstances where their income is more or less appropriate to match their habitat needs, which must match their relationships (accommodation suitable to living with their partner and dependents). These must match their job with its income – and with its time and travel commitments. These must match their job skills and domestic commitments. There is mental and emotional work involved in balancing one’s life and it is scary if it seems like unravelling.

The biggest fear is of a generalised life crisis in which all of these things unravel together. For example because they lose their job a person might find that they cannot service their debts (mortgage) or pay the rent and thus lose their accommodation. During the stress and practical chaos of this their relationships might break apart. During the last crash many ended up homeless living in tents or cars on their own. Many people also lost their minds – i.e. became totally disorientated, extremely emotional and unable to function.[2]

The practical projects as “lifeboat arrangements”

https://jaqastan.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/adeptes-de-la-decroissance1.jpgThe point about a generalised crisis is that large numbers of people could find themselves in situations like these – and thus need the urban farms, the food co-ops, the repair and maintenance workshops, the back to the land projects, the alternative currencies as “lifeboat” arrangements to keep them afloat. They will need these kind of projecsts to give them new social relationships and enable them to begin again, to regain confidence, to “recycle their lives”. It seems implausible to me that most people will join these projects and organise their lives around them as a choice of rejection of the growth economy – although some will. It is however not implausible that if and when the growth economy is breaking down that people will join these projects. (I have seen how valuable a community garden can be for people who have mental health problems.)

Until a generalised breakdown occurs most people will remain too tightly tied into the economic mainstream. When a breakdown does occur however the times will be very dangerous and the projects must be there ready to include and support people. This is because it is when all their options seem bad that people lose their risk aversion and are prepared to take gambles – like for example betting what little they have left or, in a more fundamental sense, gambling with their life by joining a criminal gang or an extremist movement.

Resilience – another missing word

The word to describe this set of issues is “resilience”. Unfortunately resilience is another missing concept in this book. Resilience is about how much stress an individual’s ‘lifestyle package’ or a community or a society can take and still function before it breaks down catastrophically. It is about the tipping points or thresholds within systems that reflect their levels of complexity and interdependence.

This ought to have been clear from the chapter by Sergio Ulgiati on “Entropy” which is about what role low entropy energy has in the maintenance of systems. The availability of low entropy energy in economic and social systems is not just in order to be able to produce enough “stuff”. The conversion of energy in “hub interdependencies” – in transport systems, transactions and financial systems, computer controlled production systems and global supply networks is used to maintain the continued functionality of an immensely complex set of organisational structures. If the energy is not there then the complexity degrades – systems cease to function – the organisation falls to bits.

The crucial issue here is how resilient are these interrelated structures to disruptions in hub interdependencies brought about by energy and resource supply shocks? Systems can cope with reductions in inputs of energy and other resources up to a point but beyond that point they may break down completely. When organisational arrangements break down altogether nothing at all may get produced because workers are unemployed, production systems stand idle, banks are bust, nothing moves. There would not be stone age levels of production but no production at all. Gar nicht. Rien du tout. Res en absolute.

Here’s a quote from a colleague in Feasta, David Korowicz, which reveals the issue at stake:

“In September 2000 truckers in the United Kingdom, angry at rising diesel duties, blockaded refineries and fuel distribution outlets. The petrol stations reliance on Just-In-Time re-supply meant the impact was rapid. Within 2 days of the blockade starting approximately half of the UK’s petrol stations had run out of fuel and supplies to industry and utilities had begun to be severely affected. The initial impact was on transport – people couldn’t get to work and businesses could not be re-supplied. This then began to have a systemic impact.

The protest finished after 5 days at which point: supermarkets had begun to empty of stock, large parts of the manufacturing sector were about to shut down, hospitals had begun to offer emergency only’ care; automatic cash machines could not be re-supplied and the postal service was severely affected. There was panic buying at supermarkets and petrol stations. It was estimated that after the first day an average 10% of national output was lost. Surprisingly, at the height of the disruption, commercial truck traffic on the UK road network was only 10-12% below average values.”[3]

It will be noted here that 10 to 12 % less commercial truck traffic and British society was about to fall to bits. It is easy to imagine particular kinds of emergency where the “life style package” of a lot of people would disintegrate.
Climate change, climate policy, overshoot, involuntary degrowth, collapse, risk aversion, inertia, resilience…here are a whole series of concepts and words that in my view ought to have appeared in the vocabulary but did not. As I said at the beginning of this review the constellation of concepts or the words in this vocabulary do not cover the issues to my point of view.

http://www.sustainabilitysc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/EconomicGrowthCartoon.jpg

A French book written in English?

The Degrowth book is a collection of 51 very short essays, almost all of which are by academic authors – 16 of whom are at the University of Barcelona. Although it is claimed to be the first comprehensive collection about degrowth in English it is very much a southern European academic view of what degrowth means. This is reflected in the choice of topics by the editors who have clearly been very influenced by thinkers on the French left. Thus, to my mind, many chapters sit uneasily alongside the chapters by some of the English and American authors some of whom have started from a different pre-analytical framework. I have no problem with a book whose authors start from different points but it places a particular responsibility on the editors to give the reader some orientation to the differences. It makes me wonder what the English and American authors have made of the parts of the book that they had no hand in writing.

In a footnote early in the book the editors explain why some words have not been translated into English:

“In this entry we leave the original titles in French, not only for reasons of language pluralism or practicality but also because many of the words involved sound more inspiring in French!”.[4]

My response to this is that it is not always practical not to translate. It is not practical for readers when it makes it more difficult for them to understand the meaning. Indeed if one does not understand what a word is supposed to mean then I for one don’t find that word inspiring. This is particularly the case with words that do not translate easily because they come out of a different intellectual tradition, background and patterns of thought.

An adjective used as a noun – “the imaginary”

http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/wp-content/uploads/polyp-org-uk-No-Economic-Growth-cartoon-e1298661998815.jpgThroughout the book many authors write out of a left wing French intellectual tradition about the “social imaginary”. The use of the adjective “imaginary” as a noun, as “the imaginary”, I have now learned has a long intellectual tradition in France. Novelists like Gide, philosophers like Sartre and Castoriadis and psychoanalysts like Lacan all used “L’Imaginaire” in different contexts. The idea seems to be that the words and symbols used in human communication, as well as in our thinking, do not necessarily match or correspond to actually existing realities.

The words and symbols that we use may have an invented component that corresponds to nothing ‘out there’ in the world. In fact the imagination is necessary to thought. Our ability to shape patterns of words, images and symbols in creative writing or painting is not merely an ability we have to create fictitious realities. The mind has to have this capacity to imagine if it is to be able to think at all. How else can a scientist theorise except by imagining what might be the explanatory causes for some phenomena? The imagination can later be tested and found to be true or false but the initial act of making a hypothesis is an ability to construct what might be, to imagine.

Furthermore it is through our ability to imagine the way in things might be otherwise arranged that our freedom to act in the world lies. Our imagination can create visions of how future social, economic and political realities might be constructed differently. We can use our imagination to invent things. This is why, according to Cornelius Castoriadis, history cannot be analysed in a determinist way. A significant role in the historical process originates from the creative imagination of people in societies. Thus, once we surrender to the idea that “there is no alternative” (e.g. to neo-liberal economics) we have not only got a failure of the imagination but have allowed our freedom to disappear. We are, to use the concept of one of the other chapters, relinquishing our autonomy – our ability to set rules and laws for ourselves in co-operative and hopefully convivial arrangements with other people. Hence the case made by Serge Latouche in this book for the need to “decolonise” our “imaginaries” from the ideas of market economics.

Unfortunately one meaning of “imaginary” in the English language is “existing only in the imagination”. (Oxford English Dictionary) That’s why I don’t personally like the adoption of “the imaginary” as a noun. It is too ambiguous. In the context it also reads like a word that has suddenly become fashionable among intellectuals.

I can imagine that I can raise a bag of ten apples one metre into the air with one joule of energy but that is “an imaginary” that only exists in my imagination. (An apple of an average weight takes one joule to raise one metre). While some imaginaries have some connection to reality, some imaginaries, on closer inspection, appear to be too-off-the wall and rather more in the nature of fantasies. Some imaginaries are nice to look at in a surrealist painting but non functional and some imaginaries are not only crazy but criminally insane and plain dangerous. As a matter of fact “economic growth” is a mainstream “social imaginary” that is collectively suicidal. Imaginaries have to have some connection to practical possibilities and actual developments in material reality and it’s important to note that current mainstream ‘economic imaginaries’ are delusionary.

Ecological economists have given a lot of thought to this issue by seeking to ground economics in energetics and physics. Cultural critique has to check its groundings otherwise it is waffle.

La depense sociale – what is it actually?

This brings me to one of the words that do appear in this book and one in particular that the editors seem particularly keen on – that word is “dépense”. This concept is discussed more than any other by the editors particularly in their epilogue where the authors break into French slogans in their last two sentences:

“Vive la décroissance conviviale. Pour la sobriete individuelle et la dépense sociale.”

With social dépense so clearly highlighted it is obviously important to understand it. If the idea is to be ‘operationalised’ we need to know how to recognise “dépense” when we see it. In fact I’ve been left feeling that I am unclear what it means.

Part of the problem for me with understanding ‘dépense’ is that it is another word coming out of the French tradition with which I have not been familiar. When the word “dépense” is left in French and not simply translated as “expenditure” then the reader is left assuming that it has a more complex meaning which I need to make some more effort into getting a grip on. My assumption is that I have no choice but to do extra work digging back into the history of that concept to try to capture all its connotations in the intellectual background in which it was created. In this book ideas are introduced in very small chapters that are no longer than 4 pages and that is not long enough to pick up all the nuances and assumptions of the tradition. For that reason I felt compelled to do additional google searches in order to try to understand “dépense”. I also searched around to find some more about George Bataille who originated the idea. It was on my bookshelf that I found the most useful succinct description of Bataille’s ideas in an old edition of the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy:

“For Bataille, much modern thought and many social and economic structures are modes of denial of the fundamental nature of being as a Dionysian process without stable identity or meaningful direction, an expenditure and squandering of force that is no more than its own end – compare the second law of thermodynamics….”

So this is a crucial idea for degrowth? Digging in other texts to try to understand what kind of idea this is, and what its author was about, I discovered not just an economic theory but a writer of surrealist texts, a particular angle on psychoanalysis and Marxism and a deeply disturbed and traumatised man. I write this at this point not to disqualify the dépense idea but only to point out that I am reluctant to embrace any concept with this amount of baggage before I have carefully examined it because there isn’t enough in the Degrowth book to get a grasp of the idea.

Unfortunately after a lot of work I am still not completely sure that I have understood what the word means. Nor am I sure that I have understood how the dépense chapter author, Onofrio Romano, and the editors want the word to be understood in the context of degrowth – because this is not necessarily identical to the way Bataille understood it. What follows is my attempt to convert the idea into a terminology that would make some sort of sense to me but I am not completely sure that I have got it right.

Underlying the motivational foundations for the ideology of growth is the mainstream economics idea of scarcity. If there can never be enough goods and services to meet human needs it seems to follow that the more we produce the better. Here is the simple case for growth. It would therefore be understandable if advocates of degrowth were drawn to Bataille who turned the scarcity idea on its head – the problem for the economy in his way of thinking is not how to deal with scarcity but how to deal with “excess”.

According Bataille that there is a “superabundance of energy” and more than enough to meet the basic material needs for organisms/humans. That part of work using energy to meet these basic needs which enable us to survive can be regarded as ‘servile’ serving and merely re-creating our animal existence. It is when we are deciding what to do with the surplus which is more than we need for very basic needs that we enter a realm of freedom where we are truly exercising our freedom in “forms of energy beyond the servile”.

For Romano, and for the editors here is a key concept that they want to put at the heart of “degrowth”. Scarcity, the editors assure us, “is social. Since the stone age we have had more than we need for a basic standard of living.”

The problem is that, instead of staying with our basic individual standards of living and democratically organising how we are going to “waste” the surplus together, for non servile purposes that develop our humanity, we have accumulated and invested the surplus in new technologies that expand production even more. We have thereby grown the capacity of “the economy” to produce ever more until it is threatening the eco-system. At the same time we have privatised and individualised the process of waste making of the surplus. “Given the individualisation of society, single individuals take on the burden of waste through small trade offs: from perverse sexuality to alcoholism, gambling and flashy consumption”. [5]

The alternative then is guaranteeing a modest living for all individuals and socialising “dépense”, the non productive use of society’s surplus.

This is a superficially attractive idea could perhaps alternatively be expressed like this. If we want to stop growing we must stop accumulating productive capital. (Creating more technical devices and infrastructures that convert energy while turning more throughputs into what eventually become larger waste streams). With a modest income most individuals would not have enough to save and any surplus would go to democratic institutions to dispense – though not on anything productive that would grow the economy. According to the editors:

“Our message to the frugal ecologists is that it is better to waste resources in gold decorations in a public building or drink them in a big feast, than put them to good use, accelerating even more the extraction of new resources and the degradation of the environment. It is the only way to escape Jevon’s Paradox. Accumulation drives growth, not waste. Even in a society of frugal subjects with a downscaled metabolism, there will still be a surplus that would have to be dispensed, if growth is not to be reactivated.”

I think that I get the main drift of the argument here but I am not absolutely sure I have understood it fully. This is partly because I am not sure that is meant by the word “energy” – is it the same energy that is actually becoming scarce because of peak oil or is there a looser use of the word? I am also not sure that I have understood partly because there is an implicit psychology under the analysis that I don’t get either. For example, Romano argues that “individualised dépense” does not happen on an adequate scale.

“A large amount of energy remains unused, it continues to circulate and to stress human beings. Lacking tools of deliberate and symbolic catastrophe (i.e. the ritual collective dépense) the inhabitants of growth societies begin to dream them and to desire a ‘real’ catastrophe.”

What is this supposed to mean? Is it supposed to be the same idea as “catharsis”? I don’t understand what this ‘energy’ is that is stressing people and how it is stressing them. However I have tried to guess at what the author means in a conceptual framework that makes sense to me so, once again, here goes with my attempted ‘translation’:

Is this trying to describe a situation where, while people have time on their hands and a wish to do things, they are stressed and frustrated because they don’t actually know what to do with their time and ‘energy’? Is this because they don’t have purposes to give structure and meaning to their lives and to use their personal ‘energy’ on (like the sacred)? Is this what frustrates them? Does it mean that they are frustrated because they have spare time on their hands and they are bored because they don’t have a meaningful “game” to play with their lives? Is this what it is supposed to mean? Does it mean that people need to be able to collectively express the negative feelings that arise out of their bored purposeless – feelings like anger and destructiveness? Does it mean that without collective rituals of destructiveness to which resources must be devoted that they will end up wishing for real catastrophes? Is this, for example, about angry young men (and women) needing rituals like football matches with punch-ups thrown in – because otherwise they will sign up to go and fight for causes and go to war?

What seems to be being said here is not only that dépense is a means to dissipate resources so that they are not accumulated economically but also that dépense has a function in the management of mass emotion. If I have got that right then what is being described here is what therapists call “catharsis” – the release, and therefore relief from, strong emotions which would otherwise be channelled into real destruction.

How do you administer the dépense idea? How do you operationalise it?

If I have understood these ideas correctly then what opens up for me is a huge number of questions. For example how is the social depense to be organised/administered? How is it to be decided, and by whom, what is an acceptable level of basic provision and what is to be destroyed as “excess”? How is “excess” to be identified and then “socialised” prior to its “waste” in a useless fashion? I suppose that by guaranteeing a basic income and a maximum income and then taxing all the rest away that one could say that that rest was “excess” but would the authors really want to spend this excess without any investment whatsoever? For example all buildings as well as other forms of public infrastructure would be depreciating as they always do – should provision be set aside to maintain their upkeep and replacement? “Growth” can happen because when equipment needs replacing and the replacements are “upgrades”. Where does that fit into dépense?

Further to that, what exactly is “dépense sociale”? On the last page the editors give a list of examples – collective feasts, Olympic Games, idle ecosystems, military expenditures and voyages to space and they refer to pressure on democratic and deliberative institutions choosing between these.

I will put aside at this point the question of what an “idle ecosystem” is and raise some other points instead. The implicit faith in the ability of “democratic and deliberative institutions” to be able to stand up to the military industrial complex and prevent it claiming the surplus surprises me. Given the pre-existing power structures it would be very surprising if the idea of individual sobriety and social depense did not to turn into the latest version of bread and circuses. The masses would have, at best, a very basic standard of living while the political elite would organise banquets in honour of the latest head of state, rope everyone into large scale theatrical events with everyone wearing a uniform and carrying torches while they listen to rants from their betters. Alternatively resources could be “wasted” in jolly festivals in which ‘civil people’ (who are obedient) are entertained while those who are disobedient and uncivil, and thus ‘obviously’ the cause of all the problems in society, are put in the centre of ampitheatres and torn apart by lions. This would be wonderfully effective in channelling and managing mass emotions and getting rid of the surplus too. Wouldn’t these qualify as social dépense? They appear to have done in the thinking of George Bataille for whom socialised dépense also included human sacrifices organised by the state in the Aztec empire.

http://image.slidesharecdn.com/happydegrowth1-140122071546-phpapp02/95/happy-degrowth-1-14-638.jpg?cb=1390396617

In conclusion

In conclusion, it seems important to me to know whether Degrowth is a voluntary or an involuntary process and to build that distinction into the vocabulary about it. If it is a voluntary process then certain things follow – like the need to know how it is going to be driven/motivated and administered, at what pace and in what manner, in order to respond to the climate crisis. It is also possible here that even if degrowth is involuntary, because of energy descent, that if it is not fast enough then, once again certain things follow from that about climate policy. As I have argued degrowth could be driven by climate policy by reducing the amount of fossil fuels allowed out of the ground.

To the extent that degrowth is an involuntary process then another set of issues arise – will the society and economy withstand the process without catastrophic breakdowns and what can the many kinds of projects and policies described in this book do to make energy descent a survivable process for the population? A great many people will be finding that their lifestyle packages are severely stressed and breaking apart and this will generate a great deal of fear and ‘negative’ emotions.

Notions like “dépense” are useful for drawing attention to fact that “surplus resources” can be ‘invested’ in things that have consequences for mass emotions and therefore for social stability or conflict. However, one must ask how much “surplus” or excess there will be on the way down given that energy descent is likely to take society through a variety of thresholds and tipping points and be an exceedingly bumpy ride. It is true that to “invest” resources in “capital accumulation” might in theory start the economy growing again – but only if new energy sources were found.

Growth is unlikely in a society where energy inputs are rapidly shrinking. Instead what is needed for the resources that are there is investment in the community level projects and activities which help people cope – an investment directly in the lifeboat projects as I have called them. There is a danger that the rather vague call for “socialised dépense” can be interpreted as a support for state centralisation of the remaining surplus – for the maintenance of remaining resources in the hands of the military, the state bureaucracy and privileged insiders whose claim to maintain “order” in difficult times is also buttressed by the use of resources to display their power and add theatrical embellishment to their authority. I don’t think this would be a very good idea…..

Read the response to this review by Giorgos Kallis, one of the book’s editors

Endnotes

[1] Turner, G. M. (2012). On the Cusp of Collapse. Updated Comparison of the Limits of Growth with historical data. GAIA 21/2 , 116-124.
[2] See my paper produced for Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, Paris, 18/19th April 2008 at http://events.it-sudparis.eu/degrowthconference/en/themes/ I did not attend this conference because, not being an academic, I could not afford to.
[3] http://www.feasta.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Catastrophic-shock-pandemic2.pdf
[4] footnote on page 5
[5] Onofrio Romano p 88

Featured image: community garden in Denver, Colorado. Author: emerson12. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2007_community_garden_DenverCO_787214962.jpg

The GDP-Energy Tie

Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg

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Published on Our Finite World on February 5, 2015

oilwell

Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

Charts showing the long-term GDP-energy tie (Part 2 – A New Theory of Energy and the Economy)

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about why cheap fuels act to create economic growth. In this post, we will look at some supporting data showing how this connection works. The data is over a very long time period–some of it going back to the Year 1 C. E.

We know that there is a close connection between energy use (and in fact oil use) and economic growth in recent years.

Figure 1. Comparison of three-year average growth in world real GDP (based on USDA values in 2005$), oil supply and energy supply. Oil and energy supply are from BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2014.

Figure 1. Comparison of three-year average growth in world real GDP (based on USDA values in 2005$), oil supply and energy supply. Oil and energy supply are from BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2014.

In this post, we will see how close the connection has been, going back to the Year 1 CE. We will also see that economies that can leverage their human energy with inexpensive supplemental energy gain an advantage over other economies. If this energy becomes high cost, we will see that countries lose their advantage over other countries, and their economic growth rate slows.

A brief summary of my view discussed in Part 1 regarding how inexpensive energy acts to create economic growth is as follows:

The economy is a networked system. With cheap fuels, it is possible to leverage the expensive energy that humans can create from eating foods (examples: ability to dig ditches, do math problems), so as to produce more goods and services with the same number of workers. Workers find that their wages go farther, allowing them to buy more goods, in addition to the ones that they otherwise would have purchased.

The growth in the economy comes from what I would call increasing affordability of goods. Economists would refer to this increasing affordability as increasing demand. The situation might also be considered increasing productivity of workers, because the normal abilities of workers are leveraged through the additional tools made possible by cheap energy products.

Thus, if we want to keep the economy functioning, we need an ever-rising supply of cheap energy products of the appropriate types for our built infrastructure. The problem we are encountering now is that this isn’t happening–more energy supply may be available, but it is expensive-to-produce supply. Our networked economy sends back strange signals–namely inadequate demand and low prices–when the cost of energy products is too high relative to wages. These low prices are also a signal that we are reaching other limits of a networked economy, such as too much debt and taxes that are too high for workers to pay.

Looking at very old data – Year 1 C. E. onward

Some very old data is available. The British Economist Angus Maddison made GDP and population estimates for a number of dates between 1 C. E. and 2008, for selected countries and the world in total. Canadian Energy Researcher Vaclav Smil gives historical energy consumption estimates back to 1800 in his book Energy Transitions – History, Requirements and Prospects.

If we look at the average annual increase in GDP going back to the Year 1 C. E., it appears that the annual growth rate in inflation-adjusted GDP peaked in the 1940 to 1970 period, and has been falling ever since. So the long-term downward trend in world GDP growth has lasted at least 44 years at this point.

Figure 2. Average annual increase in GDP per capita, based on work of Angus Maddison through 2000; USDA population/real GDP figures used for 2000 to 2014.

Figure 2. Average annual increase in inflation-adjusted GDP, based on work of Angus Maddison through 2000; USDA population/real GDP figures used for 2000 to 2014.

A brief synopsis of what happened in the above periods is as follows:

  • 1 to 1000 – Collapse of several major civilizations, including the Roman Empire. Metal was made using charcoal from wood, but this led to deforestation and soil erosion. Egypt and the Middle East had extensive irrigation of crops using river water. Some trade by ship. Most of the population were farmers.
  • 1000 to 1500 – Early use of peat moss for heat energy for industrialization, particularly in Netherlands, leading to increased trade. Continued use of wood in cold countries, with deforestation issues.
  • 1500 to 1820 – European empire expansion to the New World and to colonies in Africa, allowing world population to grow. Britain began using coal. Netherlands added wind turbines beside greater use of peat moss.
  • 1820 to 1900 – Coal allowed metals to be made cheaply. Parts of farm work could be transferred to horses with greater use of metal tools. Coal allowed many types of new technology including hydroelectric dams, trains, and steam powered boats.
  • 1900 to 1940 – Expanded use of coal, with beginning use of oil as a transportation fuel. Depression was during this period.
  • 1940 to 1970 – Post war rebuilding of Europe and Japan and US baby boom led to hugely expanded use of fossil fuels. Antibiotic use began; birth control pills became available. Food production greatly expanded with fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides.
  • 1970 to 2000 – 1970 was the beginning of the great “oops,” when US oil production started to decline, and oil prices spiked. This set off a major push toward efficiency (smaller cars, better mileage) and shifts to other fuels, including nuclear.
  • 2000 to 2014 – Another big “oops,” as oil prices spiked upward, when North Sea and Mexican oil began to decline. Much outsourcing of manufacturing to countries where production was cheaper. Huge financial problems in 2008, never completely fixed.

Growth in GDP in Figure 2 generally follows the pattern we would expect, if fossil fuels and earlier predecessor fuels raised GDP and the great “oopses” during the 1970-2000 and 2000-2014 periods reduced economic growth.

Population Growth vs Growth in Standard of Living

GDP growth is composed of two different types of growth: (1) population growth and (2) rise in the standard of living (or per capita GDP growth). We can look at these two kinds of growth separately, using Maddison’s data. My discussion earlier about cheap energy having a favorable impact on the amount of goods an economy could create relates primarily to the second kind of growth (rise in the standard of living). There would be a carry-over to population growth as well, because parents who have more adequate resources can afford more children.

If we compare the population growth pattern in Figure 3 with the total GDP growth pattern shown in Figure 2, we notice some differences. One such difference is the lower population growth rate in the 2000-2014 period. Compared to the period before fossil fuels (generally before 1820), the population growth rate is still exceedingly high.

Figure 3. Average annual increase in world population, based on work of Angus Maddison through 2000; USDA population figures used for 2000 to 2014.

Figure 3. Average annual increase in world population, based on work of Angus Maddison through 2000; USDA population figures used for 2000 to 2014.

If we look at world per capita GDP growth by time-period (Figure 4), we see practically no growth until the time of fossil fuels–in other words, 1820 and succeeding periods.

Figure 4. Average annual increase in GDP per capita, based on work of Angus Maddison through 2000; USDA population/real GDP figures used for 2000 to 2014.

Figure 4. Average annual increase in GDP per capita, based on work of Angus Maddison through 2000; USDA population/real GDP figures used for 2000 to 2014.

In other words, in these early periods, civilizations were often able to build empires. Doing so seems to have allowed greater population and more building of cities, but it didn’t raise the standard of living of most of the population by very much. If we look at the earliest periods, (Years 1 to 1000; 1000 to 1500, and even most places in 1500 to 1820), the average per capita income seems to have been equivalent to about $1 or $2 per day, today.

I earlier showed how world per capita energy consumption has grown since 1820, based on the work of Vaclav Smil (Figure 5).

Figure 5. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent divided by population estimates by Angus Maddison.

Figure 5. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent divided by population estimates by Angus Maddison.

It is clear from Figure 5 that the largest increase in energy consumption came in the 1940 to 1970 period. One thing that is striking is that world population took a sharp upward turn at the same time more fossil fuel use was added (Figure 6).

Figure 6. World population growth, based on data of Angus Maddison.Figure 6. World population growth, based on data of Angus Maddison.

While this increase in population holds for the world in total, analyzing population growth by country or country grouping yields very erratic results. This is true all the way back to the Year 1. If we look at percentages of world population at various points in time for selected countries and country groups, we get the distribution shown in Figure 7.  (The list of country groups shown is not exhaustive.)

Figure 7. Share of world population from Year 1 to 2014, based primarily on estimates of Angus Maddison.Figure 7. Share of world population from Year 1 to 2014, based primarily on estimates of Angus Maddison.

Part of what happens is that economic collapses (or famines or epidemics) set population back by very significant amounts in local areas. For example, Maddison shows the population of Italy as 8,000,000 in the Year 1, but only 5,000,ooo in the Year 1000, hundreds of years after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Per capita GDP for Italy dropped by half over this period, from about double that of most other countries to about equivalent to that of other countries. Thus, wages might have dropped from the equivalent of $3.oo a day to the equivalent to $1.50 a day. None of the economies were at a very high level, so most workers, if they survived a collapse, could find work at their same occupation (generally farming), if they could find another group that would provide protection from attacks by outsiders.

If we look at the trend in population shown on Figure 7, we see that the semi-arid, temperate areas seemed to predominate in population in the Year 1. As peat moss and fossil fuels were added, population of some of the colder areas of the world could grow. These colder areas soon “maxed out” in population, so population growth had to slow down greatly or stop. The alternative to population growth was emigration, with the “New World” growing in its share of the world’s population and the “Old World” contracting.

Each part of the world has its own challenges, from Africa’s problems with tropical diseases to the Middle East’s challenges with water. To the extent that work-arounds can be found, population can expand. If the work-around is cheap (immunization for a tropical disease, for example), population may be able to expand with only a small amount of additional energy consumption.

One point that many people miss is that Japan’s low growth in GDP in recent years is to a significant extent the result of low population growth. In the published GDP figures we see, no distinction is made between the portion that is due to population growth and the portion that is due to rise in the standard of living (that is, rise in GDP per capita).

Growth in Per Capita GDP in the “Advanced Economies” 

As noted above, the big increase in per capita energy use shown in Figure 5 came in the 1940 to 1970 period. No breakdown by country is available, but this period includes rebuilding period after World War II for Europe and Japan, and the period with a huge increase in consumer debt in the United States. Thus, we would expect those three country/groups would benefit disproportionally. In fact, we see very large increases in per capita GDP for these countries, as fossil fuels were added, particularly oil.

Figure 8. Average increase in per capita GDP for the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, based on work of Angus Maddison.

Figure 8. Average increase in per capita GDP for the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, based on work of Angus Maddison for 2000 and prior, and USDA real GDP and population data subsequent to that date.

These three economies (Western Europe, USA, and Japan) are all fairly high users of oil. If we look at long-term world oil production versus price (Figure 9), we see that growth in consumption was rising rapidly until about 1970.

Figure 9. World oil consumption vs. price, based on BP Review of World Energy data after 1965, and Vaclav Smil data prior to 1965.

Figure 9. World oil consumption vs. price based on BP Review of World Energy data after 1965, and Vaclav Smil data prior to 1965.

In fact, if we calculate average annual increase in oil consumption for the periods of our analysis, we find that they are

  • 1900 to 1940 – 6.9% per year
  • 1940 to 1970 – 7.6% per year
  • 1970 to 2000 – 1.5% per year
  • 2000 to 2013 – 1.1% per year

Growth in oil production “hit a wall” in 1970, when US oil production unexpectedly stopped growing and started declining. (Actually, this pattern had been predicted by M. King Hubbert and others). Oil prices spiked shortly thereafter. The situation was more or less resolved by making a number of changes to the economy (switching electricity production from oil to other fuels wherever possible; building smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles), as well as ramping up oil production in places such as the North Sea, Alaska, and Mexico.

Oil prices were brought down, but not to the $20 per barrel level that had been available prior to 1970. Most of the infrastructure (roads, pipelines, electrical transmission lines, schools) in the USA, Europe, and Japan had been built with oil at a $20 per barrel level. Changing to a higher price level is very difficult, because repair costs are much higher and because an economy that uses very much high-priced oil in its energy mix is not competitive with countries using a cheaper fuel mix.

Figure 10. Percentage of energy consumption from oil, for selected countries/groups, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.

Figure 10. Percentage of energy consumption from oil, for selected countries/groups, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.

In the 2007-2008 period, oil prices spiked again, leading to a major recession, especially among the countries that used very much oil in their energy mix. With these higher prices, the leveraging impact of oil in bringing down the cost of human energy was disappearing. All of the “PIIGS” (countries with especially bad financial problems in the 2008 crisis) had very high oil concentrations, up near Greece on the chart above. Japan’s oil consumption was very high as well, as a percentage of its energy use. When we looked at the impact of the recession, the countries with the highest percentage of oil consumption in 2004 had the worst economic growth rates in the period 2005 to 2011.

Figure 11. Average percent growth in real GDP between 2005 and 2011, based on USDA GDP data in 2005 US$.

Figure 11. Average percent growth in real GDP between 2005 and 2011 for selected groups, based on USDA GDP data in 2005 US$.

Getting back to Figure 9, after the financial crisis in 2008, oil prices stayed low until the United States began its program of Quantitative Easing (QE), helping keep interest rates extra low and providing extra liquidity. Oil prices immediately began rising again, getting to the $100 per barrel level and remaining about at that level until 2014. The combination of low interest rates and high prices encouraged oil production from shale formations, helping to keep world oil production rising, despite a drop in oil production in the North Sea, Alaska and Mexico. Thus, for a while, the conflict between high prices and the ability of economies to pay for these high prices was resolved in favor of high prices.

The high oil prices–around $100 per barrel–continued until United States QE was tapered down and stopped in 2014. About the same time, China made changes that made debt more difficult to obtain. Both of these factors, as well as the long-term adverse impact of $100 per barrel oil prices on the economy, brought oil price down to its current level, which is around $50 per barrel (Figure 10). The $50 per barrel price is still very high relative to the cost of oil when our infrastructure was built, but low relative to the current cost of oil production.

Figure 12. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

Figure 12. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.

If a person looks back at Figure 9, it is clear that high oil prices brought oil consumption down in the early 1980s, and again for a very brief period in late 2008-early 2009. But since 2009, oil consumption has continued to rise, thanks to high prices and the additional oil from US shale.

The low prices we are now encountering are a message from our networked economy, saying, “No, the economy cannot really afford oil at this high a price level. It looked like it could for a while, thanks to all of the financial manipulation, but this is not really the case.” Meanwhile, we see in Figure 8 that for the combination of the EU, USA, and Japan, growth in per capita GDP has been very low in the period since 2000, reflecting the influence of high oil prices on these economies.

Growth in Per Capita GDP for Selected Other Economies

In recent years, per capita GPD growth has shifted dramatically. Figure 13 below shows increases in GDP per capita for selected other areas of the world.

Figure 13. Average growth in per-capita GDP for selected economies, based on work of Angus Maddison for Year 1 to 2000, and based on USDA real GDP figures in 2010 US$ for 2000 to 2014 .

Figure 13. Average growth in per-capita GDP for selected economies, based on work of Angus Maddison for Year 1 to 2000, and based on USDA real GDP figures in 2010 US$ for 2000 to 2014

The “stand out” economy in recent growth in GDP per capita is China. China was added to the World Trade Organization in December 2001. Since then, its coal use, and energy use in general, has soared.

Figure 14. China's energy consumption by source, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 14. China’s energy consumption by source, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data.

If we calculate the growth in China’s energy consumption for the periods we are looking at, we find the following growth rates:

  • 1970 to 2000 – 5.4% per year
  • 2000 to 2013 – 8.6% per year

A major concern now is that China’s growth rate is slowing, in part due to debt controls. Other factors in the slowdown include the impact pollution is having on the Chinese people, the slowdown in the European and Japanese economies, and the fact that the Chinese market for condominiums and factories is rapidly becoming “saturated”.

There have been recent reports that the factory portion of the Chinese economy may now be contracting. Also, there are reports that Chinese coal consumption decreased in 2014. This is a chart by one analyst showing the apparent recent decrease in coal consumption.

Figure 15. Chart by Lauri Myllyvirta showing a preliminary estimate of 2014 coal consumption in China.

Figure 15. Chart by Lauri Myllyvirta showing a preliminary estimate of 2014 coal consumption in China.

Where Does the World Economy Go From Here?

In Part 1, I described the world’s economy as one that is based on energy. The design of the system is such that the economy can only grow; shrinkage tends to cause collapse. If my view of the situation is correct, then we need an ever-rising amount of  inexpensive energy to keep the system going. We have gone from trying to grow the world economy on oil, to trying to grow the world economy on coal. Both of these approaches have “hit walls”. There are other low-income countries that might increase industrial production, such as in Africa, but they are lacking coal or other cheap fuels to fuel their production.

Now we have practically nowhere to go. Natural gas cannot be scaled up quickly enough, or to large enough quantities. If such a large scale up were done, natural gas would be expensive as well. Part of the high cost is the cost of the change-over in infrastructure, including huge amounts of new natural gas pipeline and new natural gas powered vehicles.

New renewables, such as wind and solar photovoltaic panels, aren’t solutions either. They tend to be high cost when indirect costs, such as the cost of long distance transmission and the cost of mitigating intermittency, are considered. It is hard to create large enough quantities of new renewables: China has been rapidly adding wind capacity, but the impact of these additions can barely can be seen at the top of Figure 14. Without supporting systems, such as roads and electricity transmission lines (which depend on oil), we cannot operate the electric systems that these devices are part of for the long term, either.

We truly live in interesting times.

Schools of Thought on DeGrowth

Off the keyboard of Brian Davey

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Published on FEASTA on October 2, 2014

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Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner

Note: This is an excerpt from Brian Davey’s book Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis, soon to be published by Feasta.

The economy of the future is described by different groups with different words in different languages and they do not always exactly translate into an identical idea. However, the words, like “Degrowth”, “Decroissance”(French) or “Postwachstum”(German) share an idea of contraction of the economy in order to stay within ecological limits while at the same time including the idea that there will be a need for community and political solutions to the problems that we already know will emerge – the unemployment, the energy shortages, the hunger and the homelessness. Since 2008 there have been 4 global “degrowth conferences” each larger than the previous one – in 2008 in Paris, 2010 in Barcelona, 2012 in Venice and, most recently, in September 2014 in Leipzig in Germany. The alternative vision and philosophies for society that has emerged from this process is drawing on a variety of sources. This includes a lively dialogue between the theorists of degrowth in the countries of the global north with activists and strategists against poverty and environmental degradation in the south. For example, ideas like “buen vivir” from the indigenous people of the Andes have become sources of inspiration that are widely accepted.[1]

The Spectrum of Degrowth Perspectives

This does not mean that absolutely all “post growth” or “degrowth” thinkers share the same values and understandings of what needs to be done. There is a spectrum that spans from the political right across to the left and includes feminist economic thinkers. Matthias Schmeltzer, an economic and political historian at the University of Geneva, and one of the organisers of the September 2014 Leipzig Degrowth Conference, describes 5 different schools of thought to be found among Degrowth thinkers in the German speaking world.[2]

One of the trends is politically and socially conservative. The thinkers in this group acknowledges that growth is coming up against natural and social limits and diagnose the problem as citizens and states living beyond their means – driven by consumption, the expenditures of the welfare state, debt, greed and decadence. For these thinkers contraction is unavoidable and will need to be brought about by a change in personal values in the form of more personal responsibility, a strengthening of the patriarchal family to take on more responsibilities, self denial and a reduction in what they see as the burden being carried by the welfare state.

Over and against this is a feminist economic perspective. It has not been explicitly developed as a contribution to the degrowth debate but has become an important source of inspiration. For the feminist thinkers the growth economy exploits and impoverishes the “subsistence activities” of the household, the societies of the global south and nature. This endangers future reproduction – in favour of growing production. The future of humanity and nature presupposes and requires reproduction yet the capital accumulation process, the separation of paid and unpaid work, has come to devalue the reproductive activities mostly carried out by women. The solution to this is a process of de-commercialisation, re-developing commons-based shared activities and resources and the development of non-hierarchical local structures. It is a perspective and strategy that matches well the redevelopment of local cultivation and food sources, the redevelopment of the local economy and particularly non-monetised activities.

Other approaches to Degrowth include social reformist; sufficiency orientated; and anti-capitalist approaches.

What Schmeltzer characterises as the Social Reformist School diagnoses the problems as arising because politics is fixated on growth – driven by economic sectors, institutions and structures that have become dependent on it. Actually it would be better to describe some of the people in this group, not as advocates of “Degrowth” but as proponents of “A-Growth” . This term is intended to mean a style of politics that is indifference to growth, a kind of “Growth Atheism” since GDP per capita is in any case a useless measure of social welfare.

Politicians and actors from civil society must bring about the end of the growth dogma and disentangle economic and institutional structures (like the social security system) from growth in the direction of sustainable kind of liberalism. It will be achieved by ecological taxation, policies to promote sufficiency, civic insurance systems, sustainable consumption and the development of alternative welfare indicators.

The Sufficiency School of Degrowth goes further. For the Sufficiency School it is impossible to adequately decouple resource use from growth. One consequence is that that overconsumption in the global north is taking place at the cost of the global south from which a large proportion of the material resources are extracted. The problem of growth and resource use is driven by the need to have a rising income in order pay interest on loans. It is further attributable to the volume of resources needed to sustain long distance large scale production chains. This Sufficiency School thus not only proposes a sufficiency rather than a consumerist approach in life, it also argues for the need to re-develop more local and small scale forms of self production. People must become “pro-sumers” – i.e. producers of what they themselves consume. To make this possible there is a need for land and financial reform, reform of work time and the extension of subsistence and regional economies.

The sufficiency approach has many similarities to that of the “Transition Movement” – an international network of groups that has come together to try to prepare local communities with information and practical projects for a future of “energy descent”. The movement tends to avoid explicit political engagement and favours communities making their own initiatives like community gardens without waiting for politicians to wake up to the gravity of the crisis.

Finally there is the Degrowth of Capitalist Critics. Their argument is that capitalist growth causes multiple crises and that the “imperial lifestyle” in the global north is at the cost of the global south (for example the climate change impacts). To the critics of capitalism the drivers of growth are to be found in the property and power relationships including the processes of privatisation. The necessary counter politics involves the promotion of the commons, the promotion of the solidarity economy, climate justice and more democracy in economy and state.

Rather than advocating a top-down centralised form of socialist planned economy people with this perspective tend to promote networked bottom-upwards forms of development. They see a place for exemplary projects at the same time as advocating political and trade union strategies for more economic democracy, state regulation and guided investment, reduction in working time, proposals for a basic citizens income on the one hand and maximum income limits on the other.

In summary new styles and understandings of politics and economics are emerging. There is variety and difference but, over a wide spectrum, the differences are best thought of as a healthy diversity. The diversity between the left and the greens can give rise to complementary relationships rather than being sources of deep division and antagonism.

Shaping New Utopias – or making the best in a difficult and highly uncertain time?

For all of that it seems to me that an important issue hangs over this movement – how much are we in the business of designing and shaping the future, using the current crisis to re-envisage new kinds of “concrete Utopias” – and how much are we in the business of preparing to cope with a very difficult and chaotic time where involuntary Degrowth happens anyway, opening up a Pandora’s Box of problems so that we need practical and political tools to get through them. Are we in the business of advocating a voluntary process of degrowth by design – or are we developing the ideas for surviving an involuntary and very challenging process that will happen anyway – and containing quite a few unpleasant surprises?

There is, as yet, too much that is unknown and that we cannot know. The current world economic situation is above all characterised by “strong uncertainty”. A highly complex society can disintegrate in many different ways that are unpredictable. I can, for example, write a book to attempt to describe a host of problems only to witness a type of disintegration not so far described in this book at all – for example brought about by an unstoppable Ebola epidemic which paralyses physical and financial infrastructures and global trade. Or perhaps we will witness chaos brought about by political turmoil and war caused by the miscalculations of politicians in a horrific future that is completely unexpected. That happened before – in 1914. I can advocate an open source society based on knowledge commons only to witness a disintegration of the internet because of a shortage of essential materials – or see the internet make possible a host of marvellous products for countries in the global south and then witness this internet using so much carbon energy that it helps tip humanity into runaway climate change.

Just as hottest months are after mid-summer because warmth accumulates and there is a lag so, perhaps, techno-optimism is at its height when decline has already started. At a time like this it is possible to see the problems ahead but they are still seen in the rosy glow, with a bright confidence that they can be fixed. It is even possible to imagine that these problems are a new opportunity to re-launch the utopian visions whose earlier versions failed.

Yet we should always take into account that our visions of the future are bound to be flawed by the limitations of what we know. All that we know, even if we go to university and think we know a great deal, is very limited indeed and the world in a short time will seem very different from what we expected it to be. The greatest challenge for all political and economic visionaries is that the world will inevitably evolve differently from what we expect because of processes and issues that we could not know about in advance. This is true even though we are obliged to try to anticipate the problems of the future in order, if possible, to forestall them, and, if not, to cope and do as best we can with them.

You can read Seán Conlan’s impressions of the Degrowth conference in Leipzig here.

Endnotes

1. www.degrowth.de
2. Schmeltzer, Matthias 2014 “Gutes Leben statt Wachstum” Atlas der Globalisierung/ Le Monde Diplomatique Supplement: Der Postwachstumsatlas pp 16-21
3. van den Bergh, Jeroen CJM – “Environment versus growth – A criticism of “Degrowth” and a plea for “A-Growth”, Ecological Economics, Volume 70, Issue 5, 15th March 2011, pages 881-890 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800910004209

Featured image: Buen Vivir. Source: http://icarialibros.blogspot.fr/2013/01/que-es-el-buen-vivir-aprendiendo-del-sur.html

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